How about if we just agree to ignore the elephant in the room and judge Chris Brown’s “Graffiti” solely on its musical merits instead of through the filter of an admitted domestic abuser?
The problem is he won’t let us. It’s impossible to listen to much of “Graffiti” without parsing it for apologies to Rihanna and “he didn’t just say that” moments. For example, “Crawl” is one of the album’s high spots, a gorgeous, yearning ballad worthy of R. Kelly full of regret. It’s easy to imagine it at a love letter, a public apology of sorts to Rihanna (In the video, he sports ugly black-rimmed glasses that make him look like a Poindexter who couldn’t hurt a fly…obvious, much?).
But then there are tunes that, if about Rihanna, seem so devoid of any level of self-awareness that it’s downright staggering. “I’ll Go” starts as a beautiful ballad about how the girl has left “with his heart,” when she walked out the door, but if she never comes back, “this love was worth it.” Gee, think Rihanna feels the same way? We’ll ask her when her scars heal. Then on the upbeat “Famous Girl,” he questions, “Didn’t you know I’d break your heart?” Is he, as Jennifer Aniston once said of Brad Pitt, missing a sensitivity chip?
Brown is a talent, to be sure, but he in no way rivals those he clearly wishes to emulate: everyone from Usher to Michael Jackson. For the most part, he rises to the material on such tracks as first single, the robotic, Middle-Eastern tinged “I Can Transform Ya,” featuring Lil Wayne and Swizz Beats.
But again, the material doesn’t demand much in terms of range and flexibility…or creativity. “Sing like Me” is a slow grind of a song. He takes that sexy tempo straight into Too Much Information-ville on “Take My Time.” It’s just kind of silly when he sings “I make you bloom like a flower bed,” but it turns downright over the top when we hear a girl receiving Brown’s ministrations. Ewwww.
“Take My Time” segues into “I.Y.A.,” an electronic, auto-tuned number, in which Brown declares “I want to wake up in your arms” (“I.Y.A”= in your arms, get it? ) That kind of juxtaposition, given that the girl in “Take My Time” is the kind you don’t take home to mother, is part of what makes “Graffiti” so frustrating. There’s a certain multiple personality to the whole effort.
There’s the good-timing Brown, as displayed on “Pass Out,” which incongruously samples Steve Winwood’s “Valerie,” who’s out to woo back fans of such tunes as the shiny mega-hit “Forever.” Then there’s the swaggering Brown on “Wait,” whose ferocious beats lift it above much of the rest of the material on “Graffiti,” except for the unfortunate line about passing around a girl.
Finally there’s the Brown who nearly sinks the whole album with “Lucky Me,” in which he whines about having to go on stage, “even though I’m so damaged. No one said it would be so hard.” Whoever encouraged him to put this piece of self-indulgent drivel on the CD—although he tries to redeem himself toward the end with how he’s changed and he’s “finally becoming a man”—should be fired. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the song, but if I am, so will other listeners.
He should exorcise his demons while he’s picking up trash as part of his community service or doing a confessional television interview that requires him to proffer another ounce of flesh. “Graffiti” works best when he offers catchy, dance tracks as opposed to making a failed bid for redemption.