A Film Critic Reviews Chris Brown’s Music Videos from ‘Royalty’

What does it all mean?

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Dec 23 2015, 4:54pm

Chris Brown has been doing the most with his the roll-out of his new album Royalty, which made us wonder: What if we were looking at his music all wrong? What if we needed the eye of a trained film expert? We reached out to Adam Nayman, a Cinema Studies Instructor at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University, and film critic for Cinema Scope Magazine, and asked him to look at all of the videos Brown had released in promotion for Royalty. Here's what he wrote for us:

It's rare for a pop star to take the wheel of their album's rollout the way Chris Brown has with Royalty, with Brown choosing to create a series of seven conjoined pop videos to promote the new album. This 34-minute magnum opus begs a question that has never been asked before, by anyone: What if Chris Brown was some kind of weirdo conceptual artist working in an epic music-video mode?

The story of the Royalty videos seems to be the story of Chris Brown, or at least a version of him, who, over the course of two evenings—"the worst nights of my life," he whines—experiences a series of surreal occurrences, all kicked off when he gets his drink spiked by a diabolical woman at the end of the bar he's drowning his sorrows in. Thus begins the series' two major themes, which are, in order: 1) women making Chris Brown's life hell and 2) Chris Brown finding ways to shoehorn dancing into different dramatic scenarios. In "Liquor," Brown adopts a graceful stagger to suggest that he's been drugged, which in turn suggests that the black-lit, graffiti-splattered wonderland around him is some kind of hallucination.

This is important, because when Brown emerges from this waking nightmare to find that his (unseen) girlfriend has kicked him out of their apartment via the old clothes-tossed-off-the-balcony trope, the implication is that he didn't really do anything wrong. He was late because some evil girl drugged him into a stupor! What is a man to do? It's here that a crucial sub-theme emerges, which is that 3) Chris Brown doesn't care what anybody—his girlfriend, the media, and you—thinks about him. The title of "Zero" directly refers to "how many fucks he gives."

With its synchronized group dancing in a laundromat and a convenience store, the "Zero" segment is the most conventional stretch of the Royalty series, which doesn't really take a left turn into crazy-town until "Fine By Me," where Brown, now reneging on his no-fucks policy and admitting that he misses his girlfriend, is again led astray by a nameless woman (Theme #1 ) this time into a dark room where, for some reason, a scary old bald guy on a television monitor confesses to being the mastermind behind his current predicament. Mr. Video Screen then sics his creepy henchmen on Brown for what Will Ferrell would call some good old-fashioned breakdance fighting (Theme # 2) the frenetic choreography of the battles suits the song's video-game synths, although the flashing neon background, combined with Brown's strangely dorky-looking hooded sweater, suggests "Hotline Bling" as a Street Fighter level.

Again, the implication is that Brown is at the mercy of sinister forces, and all he can do is fight them off as best he can. At the end of "Fine By Me," the creepy bald guy is shown sitting in a Dr. Evil-style lair, advising his minions to keep following Brown. But they don't seem to be in a hurry, since our hero escapes onto the street and calls his (other?) girlfriend up with a phone call to inform her that some "weird shit is happening." This is true, and it's is apparently code for "let me come over in the middle of the night to have sex with you." Leaving aside the song's creepy necrophile vibe ("I know you're almost half asleep but you know I might need ya") the idea here seems to be that even in the midst of being pursued by evil villains, Brown still has time to service his lover. What a hero.

But the loving monogamy doesn't last: no sooner has Chris hit the street again that he's once again followed—and drugged—by a bad girl who leads him through some more groggy paces and traps him in a chair. Is Chris Brown suggesting that he's perpetually at the mercy of women, and that it's not his fault that every female in the greater metropolitan area wants to kidnap and seduce him? Yes.

He escapes, of course, by handcuffing his captor to the chair, at which point we cut back to his girlfriend, who takes a call (from Chris) and hangs up on him, angrily saying "we're done." To blow off steam, she goes to an outdoor yoga class where an attractive, shirtless man walks up and—very unconvincingly—asks her out to dinner. "If you have a man, I won't intrude," he says thoughtfully; she says she doesn't. But—Twist! The guy stands her up and Chris comes to the rescue, meeting her at the club and leading a big group dance. This seems to bring things to a happy conclusion, until the other guy shows up again—now wearing a shirt—and apologizes for not coming to dinner, at which point Chris, his eyes flashing green (an homage to Thriller and a call-back to the "Liquor" segment), punches his lights out.

This ugly outburst is the closest that Royalty gets to self-examination, but quicker than you can say, "here's a new video," Chris gets blown off again by this girlfriend—who makes sure to clarify that she still loves him—and he heads to a party where Scott Disick needs help "fucking all these bitches." Chris is all like, "ugh, fine" and takes off. Suddenly the thriller plot line returns in the form of the scary bald guy, who shows up with his henchmen to beat Chris up, except that Brown's buddies—including A$AP Rocky—stand up for him and, as we fade to black, look to be ready to dole out a beating themselves.

So, in summary: Chris Brown is a painfully desirable man who only wants to get home to his girlfriend but keeps getting waylaid along the way. He acts like he doesn't care about her but he does, deep down, because he's a sweet guy. He only gets violent when he thinks he's being cheated on, and even then, he picks on a guy who's shown to be bigger and stronger than him. He's the victim of a weird conspiracy whose perpetrators deserve whatever violent retribution is coming their way. The morals of the story: 1) bros over hoes. 2) Chris Brown needs help fighting his battles. 3) Who gives a fuck?

Adam Nayman is a film critic living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.