"We made it like the club in the studio!" Chris Brown tells Rolling Stone of the party-hearty process behind recording his upcoming album, X. "We'd have people come in, turn the lights off and play all the music. It was a good way to gauge people's reactions."
That bumping atmosphere belied the singer's newfound introspection: As well known on gossip blogs for his controversial behavior as he is for chart hits like "Don't Wake Me Up" and "Forever," Brown, 23, claims he's facing down all his demons for the world to see on X – his sixth album, which he began recording in February.
"Making X, I found out who I am," Brown says. "This album has a lot of substance, from the subject matter and the situations to how it deals with love. It's really derived from personal experiences. Then again, I always like mixing reality with art."
Currently, Brown remains busy in Studio A at Glenwood Place Recording, whittling X's final track list down to 14 songs from a selection of 50 candidates. Located on a nondescript street in the L.A. suburb of Burbank, Glenwood is an appropriately exclusive haven for someone of Brown's ubiquitous pop-cultural stature, evoking a luxury hotel as much as a musician's hangout. There's Pharrell Williams moving through the studio's lush, feng-shui'd gardens dotted with Buddha sculptures; he's quickly followed by Wiz Khalifa. It's here where Brown largely assembled X, which is expected for release in late summer or early fall of this year. Working with hitmakers Timbaland – fresh off his triumph with Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience – and Danja (Madonna, Usher, Britney Spears) along with up-and-coming talent like DJ RoccStar, he strived to create a more mature sound.
"I tried to stay away from the Euro beats, and not go totally pop," Brown notes. "Instead, I wanted to take the Quincy Jones approach. The record pays homage to the Stevie Wonders, the Michael Jacksons, the Sam Cookes: I wanted to put that classic essence of R&B and soul with the new age of music now. There's a lot of live instruments, and a lot less Auto-Tune. I really wanted to demonstrate my vocal ability, creating the vibe of me singing along with a band."
That approach is clear on the first single, "Fine China," whose video debuts April 1st. With Brown singing "I'm not dangerous" in a vintage King-of-Pop falsetto over elastic bass and swinging Eighties funk grooves, it's a hype combination of futuristic and throwback, blended with decidedly old-school romance. According to Brown, the chorus ("It's alright/I'm not dangerous/If you're mine, I'll be generous/You're irreplaceable/A collectible, just like fine china") is about "how delicate, priceless and beautiful a girl can be." Likewise, the new track "Add Me In" fuses crazy techno synths with jazzy, Off the Wall-style changes. "That song gives you the nostalgic feel, but with a more contemporary bottom end on it," Brown says.
X also features its share of Brown's signature ballads, yet still manages to flip the script on that format. The slow-burning electronica of "Lady in the Glass Dress" proves nearly beatless, the stark accompaniment showcasing Brown's pleading vocal that "[begs] you to stay with me/But you're staying right there."
"There are no drums or anything," he says. "It's basically about being stuck in your ways – being scared to do something because you've psyched yourself out." Likewise, Brown notes how the evocative guitar spirals and passionate vocals driving "Autumn Leaves" turned it into "a real emo record. Onstage I'd perform this with just me and a mic, silhouetted with a guitar player beside me."
Surprisingly, "Autumn Leaves" is to feature a rap verse from last year's breakout MC, Kendrick Lamar. "I wanted to – not rattle the hip-hop world, but have people appreciate [that choice] like, 'I didn't expect that, but dang, that's dope,'" Brown says. "I picked Kendrick because his subject matter as a lyricist is beyond everybody else's. There's a substance to what he says. It's also fun to experience the ambitions and aspirations of a younger artist who's just learning how the game works." So far, he claims Lamar is the album's only confirmed guest, although a song featuring Brown's headline-dominating, on-again/off-again girlfriend Rihanna just might make the cut.
"I wrote a song for her called 'Put It Up' that we did together," Brown says. "It's still in the pot of songs we have to pick from. It may or may not make it, but you know, because she's already on it, it's a strong possibility."
Intriguingly, X's title track, the album's most overtly confessional song, is also its most outright club banger. A Diplo production (the EDM guru also collaborated with Brown on his hit rap debut "Look at Me Now" with Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne), "X" thunders from dubstep bass to trap beats, with sirens announcing a huge anthemic chorus that builds like a rave drop stretched out like taffy. "Me and Diplo always have fun doing – I wouldn't say weird records, but just other records," Brown says. "He brought this in, and I was like, 'Well, this is kind of a new sound.' It takes you to a different world, evoking a sense of the genres that coexist with each other – but all on the same song."
Clearly designed for the dancefloor, "X" also proves to be the album's most autobiographical track, featuring lines like "I'm not going to blame you for what you say about me" and "Hanging with the wrong crowd/I'll make you a believer/If I keep the nonsense down." "‘X' defines everything I've been through in my life," Brown says. "It's the Roman numeral for 10. 5/5/89 is my birthday: 5 plus 5 is 10, and this is my tenth years since I got into music. 'X' is the 24th letter in the alphabet, and I'll have turned 24 when this album comes out. 'X' is also a metaphor, as in 'ex-girlfriend': it implies you're progressing and moving on in life, not holding on to the past and your old ways."
Of late, Brown's old ways have been known to haunt him, and he sees the album as a necessary cleansing. "It also represents me focused on overcoming adversity," he says. "When you see an 'X' on a vial, it's like it's forbidden, a poison. But for me, it's also like a release, where I'm able to identify with both the reject and the good guy."
Brown continues to gain fame as a teen-idol loverman in song, but has simultaneously grown infamous for bad-boy antics that have veered into the criminal. His career is seemingly forever tainted by a 2009 incident before the Grammy Awards where he physically abused Rihanna. More recently, he found himself trending due to a series of run-ins with Frank Ocean, and he was also supposedly involved in a New York nightclub fracas with Drake that caused millions of dollars in damages, numerous physical injuries and a series of lawsuits. Recently, he entered headlines anew for losing his temper with a Los Angeles car valet.
On X, provocative phrases like "safer in your violence" pop up in songs like "Autumn Leaves." When asked if they refer to incidents in Brown's turbulent history, he says, "This album will give you a guide to all of that. Any trials and tribulations I've been through, I'm just focusing them into my music.
"Whether it's personal or life experiences – my girl, my exes, love in general, or just reality – I'm putting all that into this album," he continues. "That's the basis of what X is, and who Chris Brown is. The stuff I wanted to talk about, I found clever ways to add myself into the metaphors."
Brown certainly understands that every time he collaborates with Rihanna, it raises eyebrows. Likewise, he pauses the conversation to sing a series of lyrics from X's title track – "You can start a fight, but I ain't fighting back/I'm cool with it/I simply came here to party/Why would I trip off the bullshit/When I'm on the good shit?" – that appear to be a response to the Drake nightclub incident, even if he stops short of making the connection explicit.
What is clear, though, is that Brown feels his new album represents an evolution in his ongoing struggle for redemption and rebirth. "Basically, I'm saying the negativity is in the past for me," Brown says. "I'm just all about positivity and moving forward, being able to X out the negativity and stay on a focused path. Now, instead of me being the temperamental guy that everyone thinks I am, I'm more about crafting that into my music, so when my fans hear it, they can feel it."