“I swear to God I’m moving on!” Chris Brown shouts midway through the opening title track of X, backed by a massive Diplo drop to underscore his conviction. Of course, Brown has made this promise before without following through. Since assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, his albums have continually returned to the crime, in permanent search of somebody—anybody—else to blame for the fallout. But after three albums of finger pointing, self-pity, and non-apologies, this time around Brown really does seem serious about moving on. He gets a few last petty shots at his accusers out of his system on the title track, then does his best to put the past behind him, including the two years of violent outbursts, anger management, drug rehab, and jail time that preceded the album.
By stripping him of the indignation that’s been his guiding muse for the last five years, X offers a glimpse at the artist that Chris Brown the promising teenager might have matured into had he never succumbed to his temper, and it’s an enticing one. As teased by his 2013 single “Fine China” (which is relegated here to bonus-track status), Brown’s new work downplays Top 40-chasing EDM in favor of fleet, Michael Jackson-inspired footwork, and X is flush with callbacks to the ’80s heyday or urban pop, from the digital boogie of “Add Me In” and the four-on-the-floor strut “Time For Love.” That light touch carries through similarly effusive tracks with Usher, Trey Songz, R. Kelly, and Akon before the album gives itself over to deeper emotions in its second half. Kendrick Lamar lends a downtrodden verse to the minimalist remorse “Autumn Leaves,” while Brandy delivers a heart-wrenching performance on the turbulent duet “Do Better.”
Running 21 tracks and 75 minutes in its deluxe edition, X sometimes threatens to be too much. But there’s enough appealing material to support that runtime. After a troubled stretch that saw the singer finding new ways to bottom out, Brown has emerged with his strongest album, and the first since his 2009 implosion where tolerating his toxic worldview isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying it.