The singer or the song? Reconciling Chris Brown's 'F.A.M.E.' with his infamy
A few weeks ago, I was in the car with a female friend when Chris Brown’s song “Deuces” came on the radio. The song was probably my favorite single of last year -– its silvery synth chords, house-inspired vocal jitters and eerie harmonies made it one of the most sonically evocative tunes on mainstream radio. But that’s not why I turned it up. “It’s maybe the most narcissistic thing ever put to tape," I told my friend.
For me, this was one of the song’s central selling points, albeit a kind of extra-textual one. It so evocatively channeled the dark corners of the self-justifying mind that it became a kind of religious artifact from a lost civilization of sociopaths. No one writing a fictional character could compete with it for insight into the bleaker corners of the mind. "All that bull... is for the birds / You ain't nothin' but a vulture /Always hopin' for the worst / Waitin' for me to ... up." Edward Albee couldn't pen a more poisonous first-person take on a relationship.
Meanwhile, my friend sat in silence. By the time of the infamous Ike & Tina line, she demurred. “This is gross,” she said, and asked that I turn it off. “I just can’t believe he gets away with this.”
I spent the rest of the ride wondering whether I was secretly the jerk here. Music has a long history of great songs by hurtful people, and fans of entire genres such as gangsta rap and black metal have to listen with a constant cognitive dissonance between the art and the artist. Some people enjoy personal misanthropy as theater, others apologize for it and try to appreciate the rest of the music. But what does it mean when real-life bad behavior makes a good song even more compelling?
A nimble dancer with a thousand-watt grin and an increasingly adventurous ear, Brown seemed poised to take the King of Pop mantle as recently as 2009. Then he made some grievous mistakes. Then he kept making them. But an unexpected thing happened along the way -– his music got really, really good.
Even beyond “Dueces,” his other singles have been sneakily, unnervingly powerful in similar ways. His underperforming album "Graffiti" had a tangled, delirious single in "I Can Transform Ya," which made no mention of his 2009 assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna and felt audacious coming out mere months after it -- and others noticed.
But "F.A.M.E." is even better. “Look at Me Now” is arresting minimalist noise music, built on Diplo’s rubbery chromatic synths and processed drum machines that slither around to change the mood. Brown deftly treads between singing and rapping in today’s au courant way, and Busta Rhymes just shoots the lights out of his guest verse.
The swagger of “Look at Me Now” also comes from the bawdy sexual pursuit of the track -- "Better cuff your chick if you're with her / I can get her." It's sopping with the extra-textual context of his real life conduct and deep desire to return to his Cassanova status. That makes an already spooky, threatening song even more devilish.
Taken with the vicious worldview of “Deuces,” and when listened to alongside the facts of his life, these songs show a facade cracking, and are totally arresting for it.
When Brown was the bring-home-to-Mom nice guy, he still had an allegiance to such boilerplate ballads as “With You,” but in some way being the real life villain has charged his mind with a desperation that make his songs feel much more visceral and ambitious.
The domestic violence he pleaded guilty to is horrifying and inexcusable. But audiences have always had a fascination not just with “bad boy” artists (and this situation generally applies to men) but also with how real-life action changes the hue of someone's work. Nirvana felt weightier for Kurt Cobain's suicide; Michael Jackson's erratic life derailed some of the most perfect music in pop.
In today’s hyper-mediated culture, maybe the end result of constant public supervision is not more celebrity slip-ups but fewer. And in a primal way, maybe that’s why we still find Chris Brown fascinating -- he’s having a very rough time navigating the irreconcilable conflicts between his life, his public image and his music. So how unsettling is it that such turmoil seems to make his music more interesting?
Does that amount to an endorsement of awful behavior? Of course not. I wish I could listen to “Deuces” and not remember those leaked police photos of Rihanna’s face. But it does reinforce the notion that if art is supposed to reveal uncomfortable truths in its audience and about its creator, Chris Brown's deep troubles are informing some of the most revealing music today.
-- August Brown