After seven years in the national spotlight, Chris Brown has been defined by chart-topping highs and ugly personal lows. The latest episode: a Manhattan nightclub brawl that allegedly involved Brown, a few airborne bottles of champagne and the entourage of Drake, the Canadian rapper who has a romantic history with Brown’s ex, Rihanna.
As fans speculated about a warped love triangle, Brown’s career continued on its erratic course through turbulent skies. Three years ago, that career nearly came to a complete halt after Brown brutally assaulted Rihanna on the eve of the 2009 Grammy Awards. But today, Brown dominates radio playlists. He works with sought-after producers. He duets with huge names.
The 23-year-old R&B singer’s new album, Fortune, lands on Tuesday and is expected to debut at the top of the charts. He even released a pair of duets with Rihanna in February. Brown didn’t get there by climbing the steep and winding road toward forgiveness. He did it by racing down the five-lane superhighway toward forgetness.
“That’s part of our culture, forgive and forget,” says Angie Ange, a DJ at WKYS in Washington who interacts with scores of young Brown fans on a daily basis. “And a big part of our culture is to just forget.”
But Brown hasn’t always made forgetting easy. He’s given numerous apologies for attacking his then-girlfriend but has just as frequently squandered the world’s goodwill on Twitter. In the realm of social media, Brown doesn’t seem haunted by his past so much as annoyed by it. And he’s rallied his fans — who proudly identify themselves as members of “Team Breezy” — into an us-against-them mentality. “And when it’s us against them and it’s a young, controversial artist against traditional media, the young artist is going to win,” says Howard Bragman, a public relations guru specialising in celebrity damage control and the vice chairman of Reputation.com.
“I’ve read a lot about young people and their morality — they’re not very judgmental. You can get away with a lot. Their biggest issue is respect. If they feel that somebody was dissed or disrespected, they will rally to his side.”
That dynamic was on full display in February after Brown’s 2011 album F.A.M.E. won a Grammy for best R&B album. With the music industry gathered under one roof, Brown simply thanked God and Team Breezy. Then he signed onto Twitter. “Then right before the worlds eyes a man shows how he can make a Big mistake and learn from it, but still has to deal with day to day hatred! You guys love to hate!!! But guess what???” Brown wrote. “HATE ALL U WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now! That’s the ultimate [expletive] OFF!”
His tweets were quickly deleted, but he had made his point. You’d never have seen this coming back in 2005 when Brown first scaled the charts. A fresh-faced, fresh-voiced 16-year-old from Tappahannock, Virginia, he pop-locked his way toward stardom, quickly becoming a national heartthrob and a radio staple. In 2008, after months of canoodling too close to the paparazzi, Brown announced that he was dating another young pop sensation, Rihanna. But the February 8, 2009 assault instantly shattered the couple’s innocent image and threw Brown’s future into question. Corporate sponsors nixed endorsement deals and his songs slipped off the airwaves. Oprah Winfrey dedicated an episode to “the Rihannas of the world”. Ellen DeGeneres said on her show, “I was a huge fan’s of Chris’... [but] I don’t want any girl out there thinking it’s okay to go back to a guy who hit her.”
Yet, just a few weeks after the incident, Brown was photographed goofing around on a jet ski as if the assault had never occurred. “C’mon, Chris. Have a little bit of remorse, man. The man’s on jet skis? Like, just relaxing in Miami?” That was R&B star Usher in a candid YouTube video that appeared shortly after the photos surfaced. And while his words were far from cutting, Usher apologised for them almost immediately.
Many saw the music industry reflexively circling its wagons. “They’re going to protect their own,” says Bragman of the music industry’s embrace. “They’re going to support the guy who’s making the money right now.”
In July 2009, Brown finally issued a public apology on YouTube, both to Rihanna and his fans. In the following months, he repeated those mea culpas on Larry King Live and 20/20. He pleaded guilty to felony assault. Some fans returned to the fold. Others stayed away. Brown found himself in another mess in March 2011 after a Good Morning America appearance to promote F.A.M.E., his fourth album. After being asked about Rihanna on camera, he allegedly tried to chuck a chair through his dressing room window following the interview. F.A.M.E. debuted at No 1 and earned Brown three Grammy nominations and an invitation to perform at the 2012 awards ceremony, where he was given more airtime than the late Whitney Houston. That decision angered critics. On her sitcom 30 Rock, comedian Tina Fey shouted, “I reject Chris Brown’s comeback!” in a pleading voice that said I won’t stand for this thing I can’t stop.
Today, most of the criticism being levelled at Brown isn’t being heard inside the fan bubble that allows him to enjoy his career. His young fans may have never grasped the magnitude of the whole saga, but they do seem to have forgotten about how it all started. And that’s been easier with the help of Rihanna. “Her communicating with Chris Brown on Twitter just made it okay,” says Ange.
“Since [fans] follow them both, they’ve seen that sort of truce between the two of them, and it made everything okay.”
In February, two songs arrived to reinforce that message: a remix of Brown’s Turn Up the Music featuring Rihanna, and Rihanna’s Birthday Cake remix, featuring a shockingly lewd guest verse from Brown.
“I didn’t see how people could think it was a bad thing,” Rihanna told Esquire magazine. “In my mind, it was just music.”
No matter how delusional that logic sounds, Rihanna’s attitude seemed to complete the industry’s acceptance of Brown. “I’ve never heard of anybody not wanting to work with him,” say Boi-1da, a Canadian producer who worked with Brown on Fortune. “Everybody has love for Chris. He’s a super-talented guy.”
And in the eyes of his fans and his collaborators, that talent seems to override everything. “Overall, people love Chris and want to see Chris win,” says Nate “Danja” Hills, a producer who has worked with Brown, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and many more.
“He’s all about his music and having fun. He’s dancing, he’s working it out, he’s doing everything to perfect his craft and his career. People just move forward and move past it. His music and his body of work speaks for itself.”
Ange remains hopeful that Brown’s best days are ahead of him. She’s met Brown on numerous occasions, likes him and hopes that continued success will give him time to mature and count his blessings. “As a person, he has plenty of time to grow,” says Ange. “But he’s young with a lot of money and a reckless Twitter account. I don’t know if it’s going to happen overnight.”