Chris Brown's "Graffitti," which arrived on the music scene 10 months after his attack on Rihanna, landed with a thud. But a sinister public image wasn't his only hindrance.
The 2009 album didn't do him any favors: Most of the songs were weak and simply not up to par with his past two albums, especially 2007's "Exclusive," a near-perfect CD.
Brown is back on "F.A.M.E. (Forgiving All My Enemies)," but artistically, he's still not all the way there. The singer, who turns 22 in May, continues to advance when it comes to making Quiet Storm hits: "No Bull" is a certified R&B jam, and the Ludacris-assisted "Wet the Bed" is just as good.
Even on smooth grooves that aren't sexually charged, Brown sounds top-notch. "Deuces," a No. 1 R&B hit, was one of last year's best songs, and like it, "Up to You" is destined to hit the top spot - and it deserves to be.
But here's the problem: On the dance songs, Brown is just average. That's unfortunate since he is a skilled leg-mover and is (or was) seen as the heir to Michael Jackson behind Usher and Justin Timberlake.
"Yeah 3x" follows the formula currently dominating pop radio: There's endless drum loops, crowds cheering and pulsating beats. It's a song any current pop singer could sing. The same goes for the Euro-flavored "Beautiful People."
Then there's "Say It With Me" and "Oh My Love," two songs that sound too similar. For an album with only four up-tempo tunes, that's a pretty bad batting average.
So it begs the question: While Brown is a solid R&B singer, can he be a real pop star? After listening to "F.A.M.E.," the answer is unclear. "Should've Kissed You" and "She Ain't You" are R&B tunes with pop flavors that are semi-winners: Brown's voice sounds annoyingly nasally on the first song, and the second samples Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," so much work isn't needed to make the song work; SWV also sampled the Jackson song for their 1990s hit, "Right Here."
Brown's had major crossover success in the past; his debut song "Run It!" went to No. 1 on the pop charts, and he's had hits like "With You," "Kiss Kiss" and "Forever." Most of "F.A.M.E." - which is overloaded with 37 songwriters - can't compete with those tunes. Even enlisting pop's boy wonder doesn't do the trick: "Next to You" with Justin Bieber is the disc's worst track.
CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: "Up to You" has Brown learning from his mistakes in a past relationship and making sure he doesn't duplicate them in his current one.