Sometimes, great art is made by reprehensible human beings--or at least by people who've done reprehensible things. This is a dilemma every critic faces at some point: Can you separate the art from the artist and his misdeeds? And should you?
For this critic, a key factor is whether the artist is attempting to make art from the acts for which he's been vilified. If the artist is talking about them, it's beholden upon the critic to address them, too. So Chris Brown is the only one to blame for reviews of his third studio album noting that he pleaded guilty last August to felony assault of his former girlfriend Rihanna--a crime for which he was sentenced to five years' probation, six months of community labor and a year of domestic violence counseling.
Before that now-infamous incident, Brown was the hottest rising star in R&B, splitting the difference between the musical approaches of Usher and R. Kelly, and exuding a vulnerable sweetness that made him seem huggable even during his lustiest moments. Setting aside the recent scandal for a moment, "Graffiti" is a troublesome effort solely on its musical merits: Attempting to expand his reach beyond the core R&B fan base, Brown and a top-dollar team of producers including Swizz Beatz and Polow Da Don veer wildly from the singer's strengths to dabble in half-hearted, contrived and autotune-drenched experiments with mechanical dancehall ("I Can Transform Ya"), electronic dance-pop ("So Cold," "I.Y.A.") and overwrought, Muse-style pomp-rock ("I'll Go").
But there are even bigger problems with the lyrics.
Self-serving references to the "difficulties" the 20-year-old singer has endured since the much-publicized end of his relationship with Rihanna flit through several tracks on "Graffiti." But the key song is "Famous Girl," which claims a prominent position right in the middle of the 13-track disc, and which should become infamous as one of the most offensive excuses for domestic violence ever recorded.
The song argues that Rihanna is famous for breaking hearts and that she cheated on Brown, even as the singer proudly boasts that he's a heartbreaker, too, and that he cheated on her as well. "I thought I found the right woman/There were other guys who thought the same thing/Like them, you let me down," Brown sings to his ex. "Sorry I bust[ed] the windows out [of] your car/I might have cheated in the beginning/I was wrong for writing 'Disturbia.'" (Brown was credited as a co-writer of that Rihanna hit.)
When this is the best that Brown can do to explain his actions, it's harder than ever to understand or forgive them--or listen to the other themes that dominate the album, that we should all admire him because he's so darn rich and so darn sexy. If Rihanna's new disc "Rated R" displayed deep reservoirs previously untapped in her earlier discs, "Graffiti" shows a shallow and soulless Brown well hidden until now.
Sometimes, great art is made by reprehensible human beings, and squaring the two is enormously difficult. Thankfully, that problem isn't nearly as thorny when reprehensible human beings make art that is thoroughly mediocre and at times just garbage.