It's unlikely that there's anything Chris Brown could have said on his new album -- his first since pleading guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend Rihanna -- to convince listeners that he's still the sweetheart that early hits such as "With You" and "Yo (Excuse Me Miss)" presented him as.
But if Brown's goal with "Graffiti" was to begin the rehabilitation of his damaged image, you have to wonder how he and his handlers convinced themselves that including the song "Famous Girl," in which Brown insists that his cheating on a pop-star girlfriend came after her own infidelity, was a good idea. "Should've known that you would break my heart," he sings at one point, prompting a presumably unintended question: Has pop ever produced a less sympathetic victim?
Brown spends most of the rest of "Graffiti" in upbeat party mode, which given the clumsy audacity of "Famous Girl" was probably a wise decision. In "What I Do" he's "throwing up [his] cash, acting like money ain't a thing," while opener "I Can Transform Ya" stresses spending power of an even more exclusive kind: "Whatcha need? You can have that," Brown promises over Swizz Beatz's robo-crunk groove, "My black card, they don't decline that."
A handful of lovingly arranged power ballads were evidently designed to illuminate the singer's remorse over the Rihanna incident. Yet Brown doesn't seem up to the task of contrition; in "Lucky Me," for instance, he's really sorry only about how hard it is to "pick [himself] up and perform for the crowd" after the year he's had.
-- Mikael Wood Mainstream tunes don't help Clipse
"Til the Casket Drops"
* * *
How to follow up a hip-hop classic? Clipse's 2006 album, "Hell Hath No Fury," was a sparse, brutally efficient, filler-free song cycle about the drug trade. Its mood was bleak, its lyrics novelistic in detail -- a haunted meditation on the allure and paranoia of a dirty business.
On "Til the Casket Drops," siblings Gene "Malice" Thornton and Terrence "Pusha T" Thornton resume their collaboration with production juggernaut the Neptunes. But this time, the Virginia duo lower their standards on a handful of songs in pursuit of the hits that eluded them the last time. The most obvious concession to mainstream hip-hop is "I'm Good," in which the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams lays down sing-songy vocal hooks alongside shockingly pedestrian Clipse rhymes. On "All Eyes on Me," Keri Hilson is enlisted to prettify Clipse's generic leering.
Malice and Pusha T are at the top of their game on most of the rest; even when they swagger on "Popular Demand (Popeyes)," the wordplay is so thick and weirdly inventive that it's difficult to deny them. They're thug philosopher kings, erudite hustlers who revisit the cocaine-lined catacombs of their previous work on "Doorman." It plays like a Spaghetti western showdown in the 'hood, complete with mariachi horns. And on "Freedom" and "Life Change," they plumb new levels of introspection, both are deeply personal works that glimmer with a hint of redemption.
After the perfection of "Hell Hath No Fury," Clipse's third album is a frustratingly uneven listen. But it still contains enough brilliance to suggest the Thorntons have another classic in them. Maybe next time.
-- Greg Kot Timbaland's road well traveled
"Shock Value 2"
On "Shock Value 2," Timbaland finally offers a rebuttal to rap's recent lyrical alcoholism. "Ease Off the Liquor" might be the aughts' first instance of a pop artist telling a drunken paramour to try a glass of water instead. But many of the same vices that plagued the first installment of "Shock Value" keep the second edition sodden as well: Tim's precise, micromanaged beats usually outshine his random collection of vocal collaborators.
For anyone who scratched their soul patch in confusion at the mega-producer’s outing with former Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell, the cameo from Nickelback's Chad Kroeger on "Tomorrow in the Bottle" will feel oddly familiar. Not even the frequent Timbaland-tweaking prankster Trent Reznor could have dreamed a Miley Cyrus collaboration actually might happen -- yet it's here, and it might be the cheapest-sounding track in Timbaland's catalog.
He fares better when his past clients lend a hand. Justin Timberlake has a goofy good time on "Carry Out," and Nelly Furtado’s glassy-eyed lines on "Morning After Dark" are just loopy enough to work. The Australian rockers Jet add unexpected and woozy psych folk to "Timothy Where You Been."
For Timbaland fans pining for previous hits like Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody?" or Furtado's "Say It Right," "Shock Value 2" is a weak cocktail.
-- August Brown