F.A.M.E. and SNL

Posted on February 12, 2011 by

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Chris Brown’s career was declared dead two years ago. But tonight, he takes the “Saturday Night Live” stage with two Top 20 singles and three Grammy nominations. Is it forgive-and-forget time for him?

By Anna Wiegenstein

In a previous ArtSTALK piece of mine, I quoted a co-worker who, when expressing her deepest loathing of an issue, finished her argument by saying, “That’s like being a Chris Brown fan!” This was, at present, the worst scenario she could come up with and there are numerous people who would heartily agree. It’s been two years since Brown’s assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna, but the anger felt at the time has yet to abate for many.

Road-worker orange: not as sexy as The Village People may have led you to believe. (Thanks to People.com)

Nevertheless, Brown finds himself with numerous things to celebrate this week: his two current singles, “Yeah 3X” and “Look At Me Now” are within Billboard’s Top 20. Tuesday saw the release of his mixtape, In My Zone. On Sunday, he’ll attend the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards ceremony as a nominee. And this evening, both songs from his upcoming F.A.M.E album (a title that has stood for “Forgiving All My Enemies,” “Fuck All My Enemies,” or, in a better PR move: “Fans Are My Everything”) will reach the “Saturday Night Live” viewership when he appears as the musical guest alongside host Russell Brand.

Is it perhaps his apology, layered with his repentant Larry King interview that’s lessened the scorn toward his music? Or was it the footage of him actually performing part of his sentence?

Though Brown’s 2009 release Graffiti finds itself sitting on two Grammy nominations (with a third for his work on the collab track “Deuces”), he’s been largely absent from the music scene since the assault. Graffiti’s debut single “I Can Transform Ya” failed to make a significant impact, and comes across as rather soulless – perhaps not the best impression for Chris to lead off a comeback with.

While the lyrics of “I Can Transform Ya” are addressed to a prospective paramour, the video is almost entirely devoid of women, favoring instead to feature pieces of machinery and dancers clad in what appear to be SWAT uniforms. “Crawl,” another Graffiti single, takes the opposite tact, with Brown pleading for forgiveness from an unnamed female starlet, not that that means anything, obviously.

The “Crawl” video: Symbolism? What symbolism?

In the interim since Graffiti’s debut, radio hasn’t wanted for male pop/R&B/dance artists – we’ve had Taio Cruz and Jason Derülo to fill the void, not to mention the massive successes from Chris Brown’s earlier self, Usher. “I Can Transform Ya” was OK, but “OMG” and “DJ Got Us Falling In Love” are the tracks that get people on the dance floor.

This is all without mentioning the obvious: While Chris’ position in the music scene remains in question, Rihanna has scored nothing but hits from 2009’s Rated R onward. Tomorrow night seems guaranteed to see “Love The Way You Lie,” her abusive-relationship cautionary tale with Eminem, walk away with at least one award in its five nominated categories. The collision is nothing if not poetic.

When it comes to violent assault, Brown is in fairly notable company, both musical and otherwise. While Charlie Sheen’s exploits remain in the public eye, there are numerous musicians who’ve faced assault charges – from Jay-Z to Amy Winehouse. But these incidents have largely been dropped from public discussion – Winehouse seems unable to make rational decisions much of the time, and the man Hov was accused of stabbing was a little-known record executive, so who cares? Sean Penn has had a number of dust-ups, but he’s talented enough that public discussion of him still focuses on his acting.

Just because the Simpsons hang out with him doesn’t make James Brown a role model, kids. (Thanks to morethings.com)

The age-old conundrum of “art vs. artist” rears its head, this time complicated by timing. James Brown beat women, without question. But most of us learned this after we were exposed to the Godfather of Soul’s best work – even at a young age, “I Feel Good” has seeped into our minds via its use in montages and trailers throughout the ages. Meanwhile, Brown’s outburst occurred on the heels of his most successful album to date. Even those who don’t like him may have been won over by his music being used in weddings real and fictional. (The couple in the “Forever” wedding video have used their internet celebrity to fundraise for a domestic abuse charity, tellingly.)

It’s impossible to say whether Graffiti is the album Brown would have released had the February 2009 assault not happened, but gauging from “Yeah 3X,” he seems eager to leave its chilly electro sound and return to the days of “Run It!” The song is buoyant and club-ready, complete with a chorus that’s made for fist-pumping. It’s the fraternal twin of “Dynamite,” both of which are cousins to “DJ Got Us Falling In Love,” so it’s difficult to imagine having a preference for one over the other two, which is perhaps the genius behind “Yeah 3X” in the first place.

The unconscious choice seems to be: Do you enjoy Brown’s work pre-violence only, or can the “love the music, hate the musician” mentality continue into “Yeah 3X” (a song I’ll admit to singing along to in the car), his F.A.M.E. album and beyond? So far, the consensus seems to be, “Well, how good is the music?” Once Chris Brown attempts a full-fledged return to the spotlight, beginning tonight and extending to the March 22 album release date, audiences will finally have a better answer to the latter – and a significant guess as to the former.

Anna Wiegenstein

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