If you listen to Chris Brown's "Graffiti" in a vacuum, you will hear a solid, entertaining album, with a good balance of pillow talk, club grooves, heartfelt ballads and swagger anthems. The problem is, it's not great enough to make you forget about the elephant in the room.
This is Brown's first CD since his stunning fall from grace — the assault on former girlfriend, Rihanna. Before that happened, Brown was seen as THE heartthrob, a sexy musical dynamo with charm oozing through every groove. With his platinum-selling sophomore disc, "Exclusive," he became the heir apparent to Usher, with such ballads as "With You" and airy, uptempo jams like "Forever."
With "Graffiti," Brown tries to pick up where he left off, but he can't shake the cloud that hangs above him, and that cloud darkens the mood of even the best songs. On the cocky but alluring "Sing Like Me," he boasts about the girls who can't get enough of him, but when he sings, "when I put my hands on you, girl I'm gonna drive your body crazy," you start thinking about what those hands have done in the past. Later, on the mechanical-sounding groove "Wait," when guest Trey Songz brags that he can "hit it like a boxer," it makes you cringe.
And on "Famous Girl," a transparent groove about Rihanna, he casts her as a heartbreaker, even singing, "I was wrong for writing 'Disturbia,'" the hit he co-wrote for her, then adding, "should have known you'd break my heart." Knowing that the damage he inflicted on Rihanna was so much more than emotional, you just have to shake your head that he'd be callous enough to include the song on the album.
Brown does better when he infuses his songs with some humility and a bit of remorse. On the dramatic "Crawl," about a broken relationship, Brown soars when he sings about mending things, step by step: "If we crawl, till then we can walk again, then we'll run until we're strong enough to jump, then we'll fly till there is no end ... so let's crawl back to love." Meanwhile, with the piano-ballad "So Cold," he manages to sounds sympathetic.
If Brown had waited to release "Graffiti" by even a few months, it might have been easier to judge it without the taint that surrounds him. But the situation is still too fresh to appreciate his CD on the music alone, and the songs — all co-written by Brown and a variety of other songwriters — aren't amazing enough to stand on their own.
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