The age old question of whether or not we should separate an artist from their art raises its head every time Chris Brown releases a new album, with most folk putting his music on the list somewhere between Orson Scott Card's literature and Adolf Hitler's artwork. They've also probably been taking solace in the fact that this album has had the most tumultuous journey to finally get a release, with early singles "Fine China", "Don't Think They Know" with Aaliyah and "Love More" with Nicki Minaj all failing to break the top twenty in the charts.
Since then, Brown has released single number four – "Loyal" with Lil' Wayne and Tyga – to relative success, then single five "New Flame" with Usher and Rick Ross has also died a death. Single number six, "Don't Be Gone Too Long", had the best chance of being the album's breakout hit, but it too has come with a new set of troubles. The original version of the track was a duet with so-hot-right-now Ariana Grande, with Brown directing the accompanying video himself before being incarcerated. The song now appears on the album without Grande but with some nameless female in her place, while the video has been released with Grande still very much involved. Brown states: 'My duet partner isn't unavailable at the moment to put the song out with me.' It'll be interesting to see how that one plays out.
It's a shame, as "Don't Be Gone Too Long" is probably the best song on the album, co-written by Scissor Sisters' Babydaddy and the legendary Cathy Dennis, it's exactly the kind of dancefloor power ballad that could've potentially reminded audiences of Brown's – admit it – raw talent.
When promoting the new album, Brown talked about 'taking his music in a different direction and changing his sound from pop-infused and sexually explicit, to a more mature, soulful and vulnerable theme for the album.' Anyone who listens to album track "Drown In It", with Brown trading verses with R. Kelly about female ejaculation, will wonder what exactly he considers to be NOT sexually explicit. Ditto on "Songs On 12 Play", which directly references R. Kelly's infamous album, as Brown and Trey Songz croon about their ladies bumpin' and grindin' on their laps.
Admittedly, a lot of that pop-infused sound from his earlier work is almost entirely absent here, the closest being the Diplo-produced title track with its heavy dub-step/EDM influenced post-chorus breakdown, R'n'B ballad "Do Better" with 90s stalwart Brandy, or the strip-club anthem "Came To Do" with the no-longer-relevant Akon.
There are momentary highlights, such as on "Add Me In", an electro-banger that manages to sound like it's both from 1985 and 2025, and "Autumn Leaves" with Kendrick Lemar, a break-up song couldn't be any more like a Drake track if it tried.
When asked about the album title – a capital X, not lower case like Ed Sheeran – Brown talked that it's been ten years since his single, so this is his ten year anniversary album, as well as stand for "Ex", showing the progress and movement as a person and an artist. But with 21 songs over 75 minutes, a baker's dozen of supporting vocal artists, over twenty different producers, and no two songs sounding like they belong on the same album, we've still no idea what kind of artist we're getting with Chris Brown. Emotional martyr piano balladeer? Parental Guidance nightclub prince? Because you can't have your cake and then have sex with it, too. It might be time to solve for x.