In the immediate wake of the incident that should have killed Chris Brown’s career, the singer’s P.R. team rushed to salvage his tarnished image, hoping to recast him as the jiggy-dancing, dream-date teen star he used to be. It was a lost cause. That Chris Brown died the night he bloodied his famous girlfriend, and the one that emerged in his stead was far nastier: an unrepentant, grudge-bearing monster who over the next two years clawed his way back into fame’s conscienceless inner circle with the brutal determination of a shadowy figure in a slasher film. Brown reclaimed his stardom not by apologizing for what he did, but by owning it. He often even conveys a sense of stubborn pride about it, a detestable posture that has soured every album he’s made since. Bad people can create worthwhile art, of course, but more than Ike Turner, R. Kelly, or nearly any other musician with a sordid history, Brown makes it impossible to separate his music from his transgressions. Fortune is, like his previous post-Rihanna albums, the unmistakable work of the same petty, violent-tempered hardhead that the tabloids have documented so well.
The album wastes little time before rubbing listeners’ faces in Brown’s petulance. After bowing to pop trends with the empty dance single “Turn Up The Music,” Brown sets about the ugly business of smiting haters. On “Mirage,” he lashes out at all who would judge him—“You don’t know half the shit that a nigger been through,” he fumes—while saving his harshest ire for the unnamed woman who turned her back on him. He punishes her in the cruelest way his egotistical mind can fathom: by withholding sex. “She want me to hold her down,” he gloats, “Sorry Boo-Boo, you gets no love now.” A thinly veiled threat disguised as a plea for understanding, the putrid ballad “Don’t Judge Me” reiterates that unconditional approval is a prerequisite for Brown’s companionship. “Please don’t judge me, and I won’t judge you,” he fusses, “because it could get ugly before it gets beautiful.”
Not all of Fortune is so unctuous, but none of it is inspired. Even when the album’s sex-minded second half trades sanctimony for soaked bed sheets and discarded condom wrappers, it can’t muster the assured smoothness of its sharper 2011 predecessor F.A.M.E. Brown’s no-apologies mantra helped rally his fan base after his implosion, and probably saved his career, but now more than ever he seems boxed in by his prickish disposition. “I could give a flying mother fuck who’s offended,” he hisses on the electro-hop missive “Bassline,” redundantly. He’s made that clear time and time again over the last three years, as he’s ground the sharpest, heaviest axe that celebrity can buy into a dull, tired nub.