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.