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Chris Brown Talks New Album, Graffiti and Wu-Tang – Exclusive Interview

Chris Brown
Michael Loccisano, Getty Images

We interviewed Chris at his studio in Los Angeles last week. Everybody wants to know what Chris Brown is really like. “Did you like him? What kind of person is he? Did he do anything crazy?”

A self-confessed polarizing character in the media, the Virginia-born former child prodigy has cut such a wildly controversial figure that many have forgotten that he’s only 23-years-old.

He’s like an excitable, hyperactive kid. He paints. He raps. He loves Michael Jackson. He moves fluidly in his seat as he plays tracks from his new album. Some of the songs, like the Diplo-produced title track, “X,” recall the electro house-inspired sound of his last album, Fortune, with an updated, bass-heavy sound. Others, like the Danja-produced “Add Me In,” conjure more traditional R&B trappings; Steve Wonder’s influence is apparent.

He’s talkative. He’s forthright. He’s likeable. He wants to show you who he is. He wants to talk about everything. He concedes that he might have a “bad perception with certain people.” He knows what people think. He’s most excited, however, when we skip the bullshit and talk about what he’s actually good at — music.

Have you thought about an album title?

The album’s called X. I did it numerically. My birthday is 5-5-89. The Roman numeral X is 10, so it’s 5 and 5. 5 and 5 is 10. 8, 9, 10. Also, X is the 24th letter in the alphabet, and I’m turning 24 when the album comes up, so that’s the personal side of it. I came up with the concept because it’s like the forbidden fruit. When you see a vial with the skull and cross bones, it’s like don’t touch it or don’t mess with it. Everybody always ends up messing with it, taking the poison, so to speak, so I wanted to utilize that within my album — have it basically be the reject, but everybody wants it. Me, mentally, with all my trials and tribulations — whatever the case — I might have a bad perception with certain people or a good perception with certain people, but that’s all in X.

That’s what you’re singing about on the song “X” as well, right? “I been with the wrong crowd/ I can make you a believer if I cut the nonsense out?”

Yeah, absolutely.

That’s interesting. I also heard that new song “Home,” where you’re talking about wanting to go back to the essence, but also literally back home.

Actually, with “Home,” that’s going to be a bonus record we put on for iTunes, so that was like the introduction to get people excited for the album. That concept was basically saying “I’m a regular guy most of the time, when I’m not Chris Brown the artist,” so sometimes you feel those nostalgic feelings. Just go back home. Fuck the music, fuck the extra bullshit that comes with it or the fame, it’s really just about what matters in life. The song is saying I wish I could go back and change certain things. If I could, I’d be perfect, but you know…

Like go back and not have to deal with any of the…

Yeah, just be a regular country guy. Maybe only a hundred people know my name.

Is that something that you actually want to do?

No, it’s just an idea. You kind of go back and forth as an artist, you’re in the studio and…

You’re like “f— this shit.”

Man, this shit is annoying sometimes! You get those kinds of feelings, so that was the vibe that I got from it as soon as I heard the beat.

I know you’re really into art and graffiti, are you into punk rock and stuff like that too?

Yeah, I’m into like the essence of it. Like what it means.

The attitude?

The attitude of it. I love the attitude of it, I think it’s what I kind of identify with, but I’m still in my genre of music. I think as far as the rebellious side, and “fuck it, this is us, this is what it is.” I respect it.

So it’s not something you really listen to?

My friends listen to it. All my painter friends, they have it on in the background while we painting, but it’s like, I’m not hands on with it. I wouldn’t have expertise.

What’s your go-to when you’re painting?

My go to? I just like old hip-hop. I listen to like Wu-Tang and a lot of old stuff, because it’s like, that’s the hip-hop era, so it goes with graff and breaking and all the other shit. I listen to that or I listen to — if I feel like drawing an emotional painting, or whatever the emotion of the day is — I’ll listen to my music or other people. It just changes. I’m eclectic, to a degree.

What are you listening to now? What inspired the album?

This album, honestly, I tried to stay away from anything I was listening to on the radio and I tried not to follow anybody’s footsteps. I was really more focused on just going in here and making the best material I could. I kind of locked myself in the studio for a month and I brought all the different producers into one place, almost like Quincy Jones did back in the day.

What about your rapping? You’ve been working with [producer] 9th Wonder. Is that something you’re going to continue doing?

I actually didn’t play it for you, but I have a rap record on my album. It’s all rap, it’s called “Feel That.” Hip-hop is something I love, I grew up off it. So in our era, as you know, you have to be diverse. I just like to have fun with my raps. 9th Wonder is just my homey. He’s so respectable as a producer, I just was like, “Yo man, if I could work with you, that would be cool.” And he was like “Cool, I’ll send you a gang of beats you can rap on.” The comraderie and the friendship, it built from there. He believed in me. He really works with real hip-hop heads, people that really spit 16s, so I was like, “If you like it then I’ll keep going.” From there I just kept going, persevering.

Are there other rap dudes that you’re working with, or planning to work with?

Right now on the album, I know I’m doing stuff with Kendrick Lamar. Hopefully he can get on one of the songs. A lot of other collaborations are in the works but I don’t have a definite “yes” yet, so I don’t know.

Let’s talk about your artwork. How did you get into art in the first place. Did you start with graffiti?

Well the painting stuff, usually you start off illegally. When I was young I used to tag shit all the time, school buses, you know.

What was your tag?

My tag was “Brown.” I just did “Brown,” and I would do the W and the N like crazy graff, so you couldn’t tell what it was. It just looked like it said “Bro.” When I started doing that, people started saying “oh that’s nice.” A lot of my friends started seeing it. I went on a hiatus from painting, for like four years, and then I just picked it back up maybe two or three years ago. I was like “This is the only thing that releases me. Smoke a blunt and go paint. Let’s go have fun.” It takes me outside of my normal life, outside of me being “Chris Brown the artist.” I get to go away and create something, and create another world on a canvas, because I trust that.

You mentioned Wu-Tang earlier, and I know you lived in New York for a while. What was that like, moving from Virginia to New York at that age, being into rap and graf?

That experience was like, you start off walking as a baby, and then jump right into adulthood. I was 10 or 11 when I moved to New York, but I moved by myself. My mom was still back in Virginia. I maintained my school, it was online and different things like that. But who I was staying with — I was staying with producers or drug dealers, like the whole nine, so I kind of had to grow up fast. I had to learn the streets, learn my surroundings, where I was at, how to move around and be self-sufficient and depend on myself. I think that’s what shaped me to be who I am now. The transition was hard, there were maybe two or three months where I was like “Man, I’m fucking lost, I don’t know where I’m at in this city.” I got used to it, and called it home at once.

In a recent interview you talked about returning to soul music, to the heart of it, and I was thinking about that, because you did Benny Benassi thing, and that’s really popping right now. What made you be like “I’m going to go back to R&B?”

I think it was the following factor. As an industry, you can sort of see the repetitiveness and the same shit over and over and over. I don’t want to be stuck in a box, I don’t want to be put in a pot. I always want to be singled out. Whether it’s good or bad, let me be the only one. I want to separate myself from — not to say I’m better than — I just want to be different.

So if people are going this way, you want to go that way.

Absolutely, I don’t want to go the way that they’re [going] — unless it’s like a smash hit. Like, “Beautiful People” was a hit so I was like, “Done. Let’s do it.” As far as what I wanted to capture on this album, I was mainly focusing on what my first album brought. Like, when people said “Chris Brown’s first album was better than this stuff,” I wanted to make the songs not exactly like the first album, but the same essence, the same work process or work ethic. Just the effortlessness of being in there [the studio] and being almost green. Being blind to what’s out there. Let’s just create what we create and come up with the music that we come up with. Also the old school inspiration that I had growing up. Sam Cooke, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder. I think if those guys were listening to music nowadays they would probably be — I wouldn’t say they’d be disappointed, but they’d be like “Cool, now where’s the good stuff?” I want to hopefully make the good stuff.

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