Two weeks ago, Rihanna delivered a brilliant album, “Rated R,” that doubled as a thinly veiled, emotionally turbulent reflection on her ill-fated romance with Chris Brown.
Now it’s Brown’s turn.
The 20-year-old singer’s third album, “Graffiti,” arrives Dec. 8, only months after he pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna and was sentenced to five years probation, one year of counseling and six months of community service.
Like Rihanna, Brown aims to expand his music beyond hip-hop-flavored R&B by embracing Euro-disco, Goth-rock and new wave.
And like Rihanna, he addresses their relationship.
But whereas his ex-girlfriend used her album to express her hurt and anger, an outpouring of emotional truth rather than a he-said, she-said publicrelations manifesto, Brown turns “Graffiti” into a curious mix of self-pity and accusation when he isn’t simply partying as if he’s already moved on.
The inconsistent and sometimes contradictory tone of Brown’s album suggests he jumped back too soon after committing a serious crime and bearing the brunt of a public-relations nightmare. He and his handlers should have known that every move he makes will be judged against his real-life actions, and anything he says — short of a contrite apology — will be viewed with extreme skepticism. He would’ve been better off staying silent, or avoiding the topic altogether on an album that includes several top-notch pieces of innocuous dance music.
Once a coltish boy-next-door who made mildly suggestive R&B for teens and young adults, Brown is trying to refashion his image as a cutting-edge artist — or as cutting edge as a guy who already has sold millions of albums can get. He had a hand in writing 12 of the 13 tracks on “Graffiti,” and hunted for beats that value atmosphere as much as propulsion. Brown has referenced Michael Jackson and Prince as influences on his new work, but his sound also borrows from the cross-genre experiments of Kanye West, Saul Williams and Lil Wayne.
He poses on the cover like a futuristic rocker with a can of spray paint in one robotic hand and a guitar in the other, though the music isn’t nearly as radical as that image implies. Yet several tracks strike a more aggressive stance, a teen artist growing into manhood, and no doubt will sound fantastic on a dance floor with a booming speaker system. “I Can Transform Ya” stirs up an android racket with synthesizers and guitars. Brown adopts a clipped hip-hop cadence to match a cameo by Lil Wayne. The club bangers keep coming: “I.Y.A.” channels ‘80s synth-rock, “Pass Out” spins the disco mirror ball, “Wait” flexes hip-hop muscle and “What I Do” has got nothing more on its mind than a blockbusting beat and “the cars, the gals and the cribs.”
If only Brown had stuck to such carefree fodder, he might’ve at least skated by without further tarnishing his reputation. But he’s not about to stay silent. Three months ago, he appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to explain his actions in the Rihanna affair, and he recently mounted a club tour to reconnect with his fans.
The public rehabilitation campaign might be easier to swallow if Brown weren’t trying to sell his latest album on the back of it. But he is, and now that album must be heard in the context of a celebrity asking something of his fans — but what, exactly? Forgiveness? Forgetfulness? Pity? A fresh start?
Or perhaps just a deeper understanding of the complex human being that is Chris Brown?
If that’s the strategy behind “Graffiti,” let the backlash begin. A couple of songs flirt with a public apology. A funeral organ hovers over “Crawl,” while the narrator longs for a second chance: “So where do we go from here/With all of this fear in your eyes?” That’s as close as we get to Brown empathizing with his ex-girlfriend. On “So Cold,” he asks, “Can you forgive me?” Yet the song isn’t about his partner. The focus shifts to the narrator and his loneliness since the breakup.
The self-pity is even more egregious in the melancholy “Lucky Me” and the morose “Fallin’ Down.” In both songs, the world is collapsing on his shoulders, and a breakdown is imminent. He asks listeners to feel sorry for a celebrity who must bear their constant scrutiny.
“Why is it so easy for you to blame/I’m only human, we’re all the same,” he sings, the victimizer turning himself into a victim.
The transformation is made complete on “Famous Girl,” in which Brown names names and suggests that Rihanna precipitated their breakup by cheating on him. “I don’t wear no halo/You were the first to play the game though,” he sings.
“Should’ve known you’d break my heart.”
True or not, the song backfires. Instead of providing a plausible explanation for Brown’s reprehensible actions, the lyrics come off as a lowly attempt to justify the couple’s breakup. The song throws the album off balance and makes every note feel exploitative and self-serving. In trying to restore his reputation, Brown ends up damaging it even more.