If your stomach turns a little at the thought of ever hearing Chris Brown’s voice again—or, for that matter, his name—get ready for one nauseous winter. The R&B singer, who pleaded guilty in June to beating his ex-girlfriend Rihanna during a February argument, is set to release his third album, Graffiti, in December. Last month, the lead single, “I Can Transform Ya,” hit radio, and the follow-up, “Crawl,” came out last week. There’s something audacious about Brown’s return, and not just because it took a scant three months for him to slide back into album-promo mode after entering his guilty plea. Brown has been exposed in the Rihanna saga, after all, as more than an abusive boyfriend. Promising affection and pleasure in his music but brutish and violent in real life, his love oil turned out to be snake oil: An R&B loverman best known for a domestic-violence conviction is an insupportable contradiction.
But Brown is also a major star (his first two albums have sold more than 4 million records combined in the United States), and he clearly isn’t ready to give that up. So far, his big attempts at image rehab have thudded: a stammering, obfuscating Larry King Live appearance, an official YouTube apology that came off stiff and overly rehearsed. Now that the P.R. offensive has shifted back to the recording studio, however, Brown is maneuvering on more comfortable terrain. He may not know how to nail a contrite interview, but he does know how to deliver a first-rate pop song.
He has one on his hands with “I Can Transform Ya.” Produced by Swizz Beatz, the song centers on a beguiling sound—it’s likely a distorted sample of the noise Transformers make when they shift shapes, but out of context it suggests the opening phrase of some cyborg war chant. Snares clatter atop it, and a clipped, two-note electric guitar riff threatens to burst into some blazing solo that never comes. The effect is marvelously tense. Lil Wayne, whose real name is Dwayne Carter, raps at the start and finish, and his wordplay is minimalist by his standards, an assembly line in which the same words keep rolling by (“I can transform ya, like a Transformer/ I can turn you from a human to a Carter … Then my car transforms to a charter”), which suits the song’s mechanized theme.
Then there’s Chris Brown. It’s surprisingly easy to forget about him here because his voice—coiled tightly during the verses into little droning spirals and little more than garland on the chorus—is restrained almost to the point of anonymity. Maybe this is a strategic decision: With no excess of Chris Brown on display to trip our alarms, the song functions like a Trojan Horse, sneaking him past our defenses. (The video, directed by veteran Joseph Kahn, is at once a vertiginously choreographed wonder and harder to appreciate, because it puts a defiant Brown squarely in front of our faces.)
Lyrically, the song finds a new metaphor for one of the oldest come-ons in the book: I will buy you things. (It’s Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U,” also produced by Swizz Beatz, but from the sugar daddy’s perspective.) Unlike “Crawl,” a maudlin prayer that a damaged relationship can be salvaged, “I Can Transform Ya” makes no allusion to the Rihanna assault, proceeding as though it never happened—a bit of wishful thinking, it seems. (Still, it’s worth noting that tenderness has no place in the song’s vision of credit-card courtship.)
The song raises an old question with no easy answer: What do we do when a bad person makes good art? (Swizz Beatz and Lil Wayne don’t come away with their hands clean, either—abetting Brown’s comeback as adeptly as they do here is, at best, dubious behavior.) Should we ignore the song altogether? That might prove hard in this case. “I Can Transform Ya” is currently at No. 27 and rising on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, which means the song will be harder and harder to escape in coming weeks.
Moreover, what if upon hearing the song you find yourself, despite misgivings, wanting to hear it again? The best thing might be to say you simply like the song but hate the behavior of the man behind it, although it feels strange to think of listening as compartmentalized in that way—especially listening to pop music, where artists’ personalities are so inextricable from their songs. Over the past decade or so, music critics have rightly tried to do away with the term guilty pleasure, but the notion of ethically fraught enjoyment returns here with a vengeance.
Maybe the safest course of action is to wait for the inevitable “I Can Transform Ya” remix, in which Chris Brown will be scrubbed from the song and some other rapper or singer will take his place: a retrofitting that virtually every hip-hop hit with a strong instrumental undergoes. That version will be easier to like than the original—there’s just no guarantee it’ll be as good.