If you repeatedly pummel the face of one of the most beloved pop stars making music today resulting in fallout that could possibly jeopardize your own future as a pop star, I believe it is wise to forfeit your right to use "hit it" and "beat it" in reference to what you'd like to do to a woman sexually. Call me crazy. Chris Brown might: both terms pop up on Graffiti, his supposed bid for redemption in the form of a third album (on tracks "Sing Like Me" and "Wait" respectively). The album repeatedly suggests that it would be a lot easier to believe that Chris Brown isn't a callous prick if he did not open his mouth. Left to even the vaguest semblance of his own devices (a nominal artistic statement that has almost 20 producers and an army of label people, not to mention outsourced image-oriented specialists, propping it up and presumably approving it), Chris Brown fails at persuading us that he has changed as a person or learned anything other than the fact that the general public doesn't take kindly to woman-beaters. Poor him! Oh bother! He may not be a monster, but that's only because he hasn't grown into one yet -- he mostly just sounds like a big baby. Graffiti is so misguided that it is musical equivalent of that "Oops!" chain he so idiotically donned in the period between unleashing his fury on Rihanna and verbally acknowledging it.
("It was was basically talkin' about just like, you see it like, 'Dang, that's a big chain.' 'Oops.' Like, I didn't mean to stunt on you," was his incoherent explanation to Sway, as if anyone would gather that just by looking at it before they read, "Oops! I hit a woman!")
I wish that I could separate the man from his art just for the sake of reason: we do not choose our pop stars on the basis of the quality of their character. If we did, I suspect 90 percent of the currently famous would not have jobs. But the Chris Brown machine has made such separation impossible, anyway: personal discourse has accompanied every promotional appearance. Hawking his album and telling his side of "the situation" (which is to say: not owning up to much out of supposed respect for his domestic-abuse victim) are one in the same, so that he's essentially profiting off of pummeling. At the very least, he is being paid in attention. When he talks about moving past the whole beating Rihanna thing, I get the feeling it's because he's got albums to sell.
Just for the sake of contradicting this messy (if not flat-out sick) entanglement, I want to for a minute examine Graffiti outside of its context: it is a bland collection of virtually hook-free R&B that has an almost slavish fixation on already belabored trends (thinking outside the box here involves employing an accordion for a track). At times, this thing is so offensive and difficult to listen to, I wonder if he's out to abuse us. The hook of "I.Y.A." sounds like Autotuned animal death, while "Pass Out," is based on a lame sample of Eric Prydz' astonishingly wack "Call On Me" (itself the beneficiary of a lame sample from Steve fucking Winwood). There's plenty of material bravado (cash, girls and cribs -- it's just what he does!), a gimmicky "Say Somethin'" rip-off that incorporates the names of far better songs by the likes of Keyshia Cole, Beyoncé, Kid Cudi and, yes, Rihanna ("Famous Girl"), some inspirational dreck that's as transparently goody-goody as wearing a bow tie on a talk show ("Crawl") and a bizarre sex-jam duet with Tank, "Take My Time," that includes some anonymous female vocals, lest you think two dudes singing about fucking is gay.
Brown does nothing to elevate his pedestrian material because, simply, he cannot. The nicest thing I can say about him as a singer is that he is capable of carrying a tune. From an interpretative perspective, he’s all thumbs. Seriously, his larynx is as useful as a thumb in conveying emotion. At his most impassioned, he turns on this strained wisp of a whine – a yelp, really. Otherwise, in his only other mode of emoting, he just sort of opens his mouth and words come out. They are often dusted with an Autotune effect that gives Brown a robovibrato. He’s more of a pop singer than an R&B one, and as such, has never seemed particularly sincere. When he is earnest or apologetic or fun-loving or anything but a huffing, puffing little bastard in Graffiti, believing his words is harder than ever.
That makes two of Graffiti's most autobiographical (thus despicable) songs perversely satisfying. In "Lucky Me," he whines, "Lucky me, I gotta pose for the cameras even when my world’s falling down, I still wear a smile / Lucky me, even though I’m so damaged, I gotta pick myself up and perform for the crowd." Indeed, Chris: lucky you. Lucky you that there's still one person, let alone a legion of them, that you haven't alienated with your fists, entitlement and seeming inability to grasp even the most basic manners. Lucky you. The song "Graffiti," which wisely relies on guitars and not Brown's voice to telegraph its rage, is even more mind-boggling. Brown defends himself against his detractors by pointing out his hard work and ability to get awards shows rockin'. You can't tear him down because...because...he built it! He rails against the "graffiti you're tryin' to spray on my name," shrinking from responsibility like this song is an interview, all the while seeming to be unaware that he's done more to undermine his career than any blogger or random Twitterer ever could. It is truly bizarre that the wallowing of "Lucky Me," and the defiant ignorance of "Graffiti" ever made it through the superstar filters. I cannot believe that someone actually signed off on these PR nightmares, but I'm glad they did. They allow Chris to bear is his soul to the best of his ability, to tell us what he's thinking, and it's just as selfish, spineless and unrepentant as expected. Chris Brown the artist makes the act of rejecting Chris Brown the person that much easier.