Does Chris Brown deserve ‘no stars ever’?

Chris Brown may be a shit human being, but that doesn’t mean his music is beyond fair critical appraisal, writes CAITLIN WELSH following Chloe Papas’ infamous “no stars ever” review.

Last week, Chloe Papas’ scorched-earth review of Chris Brown’s new album Fortune spread across the interwebs, trailing righteous applause and gratified commenters in its wake. “BEST REVIEW YOU’LL EVER READ,” crowed several American blogs. In essence, she said the album has no artistic value whatsoever. It is also often, like far too much commercial R&B and hip-hop, incredibly anti-women in its themes. Moreover, Chris Brown is a piece of shit who has shown no genuine remorse for his felony assault conviction against then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, only a petulant resentment that people continue to mention it at all. I agree with essentially everything she said.

But I find it hard to believe that Papas went to her editor and asked to review Brown’s latest album because she was interested in hearing what innovative new direction Brown’s music was taking. Most music critics have at one point or another taken a review assignment licking their lips at the prospect of a good old-fashioned Christians-vs-lions evisceration, or because they already have an opinion formed or half-formed and would very much like to have an audience for it. A good music critic tells you what they really think about an album. A good music critic is able to set aside preconceptions, to admit when they are wrong or simply surprised by a record. Papas was never in any danger of enjoying or being surprised by Fortune, but even if she had been, that was not the purpose of the piece. Her inability or refusal to engage with the actual music at all is not only amateurish, but doesn’t add to the conversation at all.

People have acknowledged that slamming your girlfriend’s head in a car door is wrong. This is excellent, and worth celebrating. The outcry against Brown following his felony assault conviction has raised awareness of what is obfuscatingly and euphemistically called domestic violence. Every time I see a smart public figure publicly denouncing Brown and/or his defenders – particularly a man – I rejoice a little. But if you’ve ever tweeted anything negative about Brown, you might’ve come across Team Breezy.

While many of them are simply pop fans who can’t or won’t let his awfulness interfere with their enjoyment of his music, there are others who clearly spend all their time looking for critics of Brown to abuse. Once they pop up, it can be fun to bait them. They tend to be just on the wrong side of literate; use a lot of all-caps; and when backed into a corner, will often drop something like, “WHO MADE YOU GOD TO JUDGE ANOTHER HUMAN BEING?” Even more horrifyingly, many of them tweeted after his Grammys performance that they’d, like, totally let him beat them any time.

They are called Team Breezy by themselves and by Brown. He thanks them a lot. While it’s become de rigeur for every pop star’s glittery minion army to have their own demonym, there’s something on the nose, even a little etymologically sinister about the adversarial vibe here. If they are Team Breezy, who are we? Are we The Opposition? Team Rihanna? Team Drake? Team Not Beating Women?

The arguments that both Brown and his followers spout in his defence tend to run along one of two lines. One is to point out all the other entertainers who have beaten, stabbed, robbed, raped, bludgeoned, snorted, crashed, abused or otherwise fucked up real bad, and been welcomed back into the fold after some or no time at all. From Errol Flynn to Charlie Sheen and all the woman-bashing Browns (James, Bobby, etc), celebrity history is full of awful humans. The difference is Chris Brown happens to have committed his crime in an era of TMZ, the 24-hour news cycle and Twitter. We all saw a horrifying picture of what he actually did to his girlfriend, so yes, few of us have rushed to forgive him.

But the other criticism levelled at writers is that we are attacking the man, not the music. Papas certainly prioritised lambasting Brown’s horrible-person status over tearing into the music. She’s far from the only one taking this tack, just the most visible right now. I’ve done it myself, albeit on Twitter and not in a published review. Chad Taylor, a critic for an Iowa paper, published a six-word review of the album: “Chris Brown hits women. Enough said.” By all means, refuse to engage with Chris Brown’s music, give it no “stars ever”, but then you also have to give “no stars ever” to the industry that supports him, the performers who defend him, the producers who work with him and all the celebrities throughout the years who have ever hit a woman, child or a puppy. Otherwise, you are a hypocrite, like it or not.

“If we choose to review Chris Brown’s record, we have a responsibility to approach it with the respect and open mind we give to anything else.”

Loudly proclaiming that you’re never going to pay attention to him in a published review could be seen – if you’re cynical – as piggybacking off Brown’s notoriety for your own ends. That’s exactly the same as all the artists who have made music with Brown and stuck by him. Indeed, the commercial imperative of working with a man who generates such tremendous publicity outweighs any moral compulsion that might say it’s best to ignore him. As music critics, if we choose to review Chris Brown’s record, we have a responsibility to approach it with the respect and open mind we give to anything else. Prepare to be surprised; engage with the music itself; and, sure, let your preconceptions of the artist’s personal life and failings inform your opinion.

But the responsibility of the music critic, such as it is, is to talk about the music. Writers from all over have “reviewed” Lana Del Rey’s flaccid palimpsest of a record by talking about the hype and her lips. They’re “reviewing” The Newsroom by talking about The West Wing and Sorkin’s shitty behaviour towards a female interviewer. If you’re reviewing Chris Brown – if you’re going to take exposure and column space away from a great record in order to take potshots at a performer everyone knows is a completely shit human – tear this obtuse, misogynistic and derivative album a new one and let that speak for itself. Be a sharp, sly voice for critical and human integrity, in a sea of people bleating the obvious and feeding the trolls.

Listen to Chris Brown’s Fortune: