On Aug. 13, a high spirited Chris Brown gave Billboard his first formal interview since leaving jail in June. Kicked back in front of a control board at Hollywood’s hot Chalice Recording Studios, a vintage-gear-stuffed space favored by young artists, the 25-year-old was taking a late-afternoon break from putting the finishing touches on his sixth studio album, X. But like much of his recent life, the day featured a major distraction from the music: Hours earlier, the singer, who lives in Los Angeles, had to appear in a courtroom to get a (positive) progress report on sticking to his probation.
That five-year probation stems from Brown’s 2009 conviction for assaulting ex-girlfriend Rihanna, an attack that remains notorious despite his public apologies, trips to rehab for anger management and diagnoses with both bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders. Brown’s sometimes belligerent attitude and other tangles with the law haven’t helped. The 108 days he spent in a Los Angeles county jail this year were for violating parole after assaulting a stranger outside a Washington, D.C., hotel in October 2013. (Brown, who pled guilty to that charge on Sept. 2 and was sentenced to time served, punched the victim after the man tried to get into a photo with him.) He also has allegedly brawled with Drake and Frank Ocean.
Trouble has found him, too. On Aug. 24 — less than two weeks after Billboard’s interview — hip-hop mogul Suge Knight and two others were shot at Brown’s pre-MTV Video Music Awards party at Hollywood’s 1OAK. Unsubstantiated rumors spread that Brown was the actual target, and TMZ reported that he was “throwing gang signs” before the shooting. On Sept. 4, Brown provided this exclusive statement to Billboard regarding the events of the last few months:
“I realize that what I do for a living opens my life to public scrutiny and that I have a responsibility to everyone because of that exposure. I can say that I am only human and I have made mistakes. I can say that I try to live my life in the most true, honest way that I can. I am not perfect, no one is. No one is harder on me than me. No one can please everyone. No one can live in the past and expect to grow. I have been moving forward and hope that I am not defined by just a few moments in my life but all of the moments that will make up my life.”
Amid all of this “mayhem and hoopla,” as he himself calls it, Brown’s commercial clout remains massive. His most recent hit, “Loyal,” peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and generated 1.1 million of his 41.3 million total downloads as a lead artist, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The Grammy-winning singer has scored 13 top 10 Hot 100 hits, including two No. 1s; 30 top 10s and four No. 1s on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart; and two No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200. All told, Brown has sold 6.1 million albums.
Brown also boasts one of music’s most dedicated — and sometimes aggressive — online constituencies. “Team Breezy” numbers 38 million on Facebook, 13.6 million on Twitter and 4.7 million on Instagram. Women account for the majority of these fans: Brown’s manager Mike G estimates the artist’s base skews 65 percent female. (Many of them are teens, too: 21 percent of the overall visitors to his Facebook page are between 13 and 17.)
Brown is undoubtedly one of the most controversial stars in music. But during this conversation he was gracious and engaging, if a bit circumspect. As he tinkered with the final mix and sequencing for X, which RCA will release Sept. 16, he sang, bobbed his head and tossed out instructions (“Let’s tone that down so it’s not too dominant”) to his engineer. In this Q&A, Brown discusses life behind bars, his growth as a person and whether society is ready to let him be considered a role model.
Did you spend time writing while you were in jail?
No. You know, jail isn’t a place of many creative spirits. But as far as my creativity, I put it on hold until I got out. Jail is more of a regimen and a structure. I’m more of a free spirit when it comes to creating music, painting and art. So when I got out, I was very excited to get into the studio. I didn’t have any ideas or concepts; they usually come as I go [in to record]. I was drawing and sketching most of the time, biding time.
What was the daily routine like?
A guard wakes you up; you eat. You stay in your cell most of the time, basically 24 hours a day. Maybe on Mondays you go to the roof inside of a cage and have a phone call. It’s isolation. You have time to focus on what matters, on what to do and what not to do.
What lessons did you learn from the experience?
My maturity level has risen as far as my realizing what’s important. Realizing that I’m human like everyone else. At the end of the day, it’s just a humbling experience. You’re more appreciative of everything else that’s on the outside. A burger tastes 1,000 times better when you’re out (Laughs.) I’m just more appreciative of the things I’m blessed with and the things I do: music, being able to take care of my family, being able to see my friends and family. And do what I love and still be able to do it in a timely fashion to where people don’t think, “Oh well, he fell off.” Still being able to be consistent.
What did you miss the most?
I just missed my family. At the end of the day, music is definitely a passion. But when you’re dealing with your own personal issues, family is first. I just dealt with that. I missed my dad and mom, all my cousins … seeing people’s faces and smiles … seeing people who were just encouraging and positive.
How did you keep yourself motivated?
[I had to feel] like this happened for a reason. There was a purpose. Maybe I was out of control too much. Or I needed something to humble me to the point where I get it. At that point, I didn’t look at it as trying to get out of the situation but learn from it.
How have you been able to maintain such a loyal fan base?
First, I’d say God. Honestly. My faith in knowing what my purpose is and how I’m trying to find out what my purpose is. My fan base speaks volumes [to that]. I never want to say that I know everything or I know what the best song or a hit is. I just put it out there for people to like and love. I make music for myself personally, but I also try to do music that people can relate to, have fun with; evoke as much emotion as possible from my audience and peers. It’s God and just consistency with my talent. Being able to persevere if I get knocked down and always get back up. A lot of times, you can get convoluted and confused with all the mayhem and hoopla that’s going on. I just try to stay grounded; keep my family first. And always focus on what my purpose is: putting out great music. I don’t really focus on any extras or stories in the tabloids. It’s nonsense.
You’ve moved forward, and Rihanna says she also has moved -forward. Do you see a day when your relationship won’t be brought up at all?
When we’re not relevant anymore, that might be the case. As long as you’re doing something good, people will always bring up old stuff or negative stuff because they don’t want you to surpass a certain level or elevate. But as long as you have your head on straight, it shouldn’t matter what people want to say.
Explain what it’s like to live in the public eye.
I just have to realize it comes with the territory in this day and age of social media. My age group and younger stay on the phone and Internet. It’s easy access. So I just like to focus on what I’m doing instead of getting caught up. Everybody gets caught up watching Instagram or whatever; they have jokes and all kinds of things. I can still engage in it but not participate in the negative side. Not everyone in the world is going to particularly love me. But I’m cool with that. As long as I love myself and my music, I’m fine. People are going to say what they want to say. I don’t look over my shoulder or wish I could turn back the hands of time. Life is a learning experience, so I’m learning as I go. I’m not walking around angry about anything. So you just have to let it be.
Do you consider yourself a role model?
As far as my mistakes in life, that’s being a role model, because people can see my mistakes and learn from them. I’ve gone through more stuff than most 35- or 40-year-olds, and I’ve dealt with it. As far as becoming a man in the public eye, continuing to persevere and stay positive throughout trials and tribulations … that’s the only thing I’d say contributes to my being a role model. If kids look up to me, that’s amazing; great. As far as me as an artist and a person, I always want to exude positivity. But as far as saying, “Hey, I’m a role model, I’m the best of this,” I take the humble approach and let people make that decision for themselves.
How would you define redemption?
Being able to learn from mistakes and inspiring people to learn from yours. Redemption is being able to be completely humble and love yourself. Know that you’re human and understand that life has its ups and downs, but God always balances it out.
If you couldn’t make music or dance, what would you do instead?
I would be somewhere in the industry, but not necessarily around music. It would be more like fashion design, or I’d probably be a painter or street artist. I’m eclectic, with different styles of creativity. But painting is one of my biggest passions. I just started getting back into it since I’ve been so focused on music. It’s not like, “OK, I’ve got to do an art show so people buy my paintings.”
Do you feel positive about the outcome of the Washington, D.C., assault hearing?
I just feel positive about life in general. Whatever happens will happen, and God has me. I’m going to keep my faith and be focused on my family, friends, fans and music. And from there just be the best Chris Brown I can be.