The 1982 music video for Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” opens with two vixens gazing into the camera’s lens. “Get up, get up, get up, get up! / Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up,” they beg. Then Marvin enters the shot, tuxedoed and smoothly two-stepping his way into pelvic thrusts. His character in the clip is a lust-sick patient with, of course, a gorgeous doctor tending to him. She checks his temperature, which forces the thermometer’s mercury to pulse to just south of 300 degrees. The man’s boiling. And there’s only one way to remedy the aches he’s suffering from.
“Back to Sleep,” the opener to Chris Brown’s seventh studio album, Royalty, begins with 808s that nearly match Marvin’s “Healing” drum pattern, and lyrically, the sentiment mirrors as well. Here, Brown stars, most likely, as himself — fresh off a late night flight into town where, hopefully (but honestly, certainly) a beauty he’s yearning for will stay awake long enough for him to arrive at 3:30 a.m. so he too can be healed (“f–k”), then tuck her in for actual sleep. Chris wonders if she’ll leave him a spare key, but then cautions, “But if you keep the door unlocked, be ready.” It’s a strong start to middling effort.
Where “Sleep” excels as a quality addition to his catalog’s stellar collection of panty-dropping and baby-making songs (see: “Take You Down,” “No BS”), others fall and lean towards prosaic. On lead single “Liquor,” he wants to “drink and f–k,” on “Who’s Gonna? (Nobody)” he asks “Who’s gonna f–k you like Breezy?” if not the man himself. On “Little Bit,” he wants to “put the tip in.” Okay, it’s clear: Breezy loves being between a lady’s legs. Point made. Soaked in Jodeci vibes and glazed with R. Kelly-esque runs, it’s not that these songs are bad. He does his idols justice. They’re just terribly repetitive, clearly not as good as his great.
And Brown’s dated take on dance music here could stand to be renovated. Once an early adapter of the genre’s stateside resurgence with cuts like his worldwide smashes “Forever” and “Don’t Wake Me Up,” lukewarm Royalty dance tracks like “Fine By Me” and “Anyway” would greatly benefit from a remix by the likes of Kaytranada or Disclosure who’d no doubt inject them with a soulful vibrance.
One of the standout moments on this album comes on “Wrist,” a syrupy thumper blending hip-hop and R&B, almost serving as a Southern update of his 2011 hit “Look at Me Now.” Topically and sonically, the best offering is “Proof.” It’s a slow-winding tornado where he struggles to mend a relationship mangled by lies and insecurity. He’s severed ties with exes and uses lines like “Whenever shit got deep, I would’ve drowned for you” as evidence of his dedication.
Departures from libidinal thoughts are rare here, but “Proof”-like cuts prove Brown can make quality songs about relationship dynamics that aren’t tactlessly sexual. And he probably should, for the sake of a well-rounded output. Now a decade removed from his self-titled debut album, it’s about time that he release his magnum opus of sorts (see: Usher’s Confessions).
Royalty’s named after Brown’s first and only child, an unexpected gift that came nine months after a night with a casual fling he reportedly never planned. What was it like to find out a woman he didn’t love was giving him the love of his life? Did he feel trapped? Was it tough to accept? Answers to those questions via music are absent here. Though Michael Jackson is who Chris moves most like on stage, he opted to moonwalk past chances to make his “Billie Jean” or “Dirty Diana” here. To boot, aside from one heartfelt verse on the last track of the standard album, “Little More (Royalty),” Brown oddly doesn’t spend much time in daddy mode on a set intended to show what and who he’s most focused on now.
Admittedly, a rich 26-year-old bachelor’s life is full of romps with women and wild nights. Fame, access, and talent bring those with ease. This seems to be an art imitating life thing. But if and when Brown ascends to the next level, it likely will be because he starts talking about the morning after. It’s time for him to wake up.