When I first learned I would be interviewing Chris Brown I didn’t know what to expect. One friend joked that I should “bring a facemask” to our chat, and my 78-year-old grandmother wondered why I was interviewing “that boy who beat up that girl.”
Four years after the now-infamous domestic violence indecent that left his then-girlfriend (and current boo?), Rihanna, bloodied and bruised, it’s clear that Brown is still a polarizing figure. Although he’s amassed millions of rabid fans, many just can’t seem to forgive him for the 2009 assault. And as someone who has written critically about his outburst over years, I was unsure if I would be able to leave my biases at the door and give Breezy a chance.
Going in, I knew I did not want to rehash the past, after all we’ve seen the epic Twitter smack downs, heard about the fights, and watched as he spazzed out on bystanders. After wracking up his fair share of salacious headlines, many have labeled Brown a douche, an asshole, and troubled, if talented young man.
But are they right?
After going into a self-imposed exile—ditching Instagram and handing over control of his Twitter account—Chris Brown is getting ready to once again to step on the world’s biggest stage. Only this time he hopes his music will answer the pressing question everyone wants to know:
Who is the real Chris Brown?
Recently, Brown invited EBONY.com into the studio to hear an exclusive sneak peek of his upcoming album, X (due out later this summer), and if the music is any indication of where the chart-topping singer is headed next, then this new and improved Chris Brown just might convert a few haters into bona fide fans.
Unlike his edgy (and sometimes explicit), pop-infused music of late, the five tracks I sampled ("Fine China," "X," "Autumn Leaves," "Add Me In," and "Lady in a Glass Dress") were soulful, introspective, and revealed an emotional maturity and vulnerability we’re certainly not used to hearing from Breezy.
From the moment “Fine China”—the album’s lead single—came blaring through the speakers, Brown's passion for music was apparent. A ball of raw energy, he simultaneously puffed on Newports and excitedly sang along to the track, almost serving up an entire performance while we listened. He was clearly feeling it, and after hearing the song, I could see why.
“Fine China” is a surprisingly lush and infectious tune reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall.” And despite being a bit of a musical snob, it had me from the first note. But it was the album’s deeply reflective title track, "X"—with its contemplative lyrics about love and life and an intoxicating bass—that really made me question if I had ever been wrong about him. I believe wholeheartedly in redemption, in second chances. As damning as The Incident was, is it fair to reduce Brown to a man incapable of change?
This time around Breezy insists his music, not his antics, will speak for him. The jury is out, you be the judge.
EBONY.com: It seems like you’re more introspective this time around. You’re talking about love. Are you in love? What is the inspiration for this album?
Chris Brown: The title of the album is called X. So basically, it’s defining who I am as a 24-year-old male trying to grow up. But also X is also a release. X is almost like the forbidden sign, or caution, So it kind of demonstrates not always being the good guy all the time, but identifying with the people who don’t have a voice, or never had a chance, or never had that yes in their life. So with X that kind of defines who I am, being able to have that voice through my music.
[With his legs propped up and arms crossed tightly across his chest, Chris smiled but was clearly guarded. It was also clear he wanted to keep the conversation on his music and little else, he clearly avoided the love question.]
EBONY.com: I went back to listen to all of your albums and it seems like you grew up a lot on [F.A.M.E. and Fortune]. So what have you learned about yourself personally and musically over these last few years?
CB: It’s just been a growing process for me in general. I think everybody is expected to grow. I think me being 15 [when I came out], I wouldn’t want to have the same mentality I had back then, now. So just me going through different personal experiences and life lessons and dealing with relationships and love.
My album kind of brings my interpretation of everything that I’ve been through in my life—and everything that I’m going through. You really hear it from the horse’s mouth when you get a chance to hear this album. You get a chance to take a journey with me and kinda see my growth as a young man, not a full-grown man, but a young man.
[He says the last part, “not a full-grown man,” with a sly smile and I’m reminded that despite being in the business for the last 8 years, Chris is only 23.]
EBONY.com: Do you think sometimes people treat you differently because they don’t really grasp that you are so young?
CB: I kind of struggled with that myself to try to find out why people put me on their pedestal. But you know what it is? It’s a responsibility. For me, the responsibility I have to be an idol or to be looked upon as talented or creative or an inspiration–that comes with the territory.
People will automatically bring you into their life because you’re almost a part of it. Being on the radio all the time or being in a video, you’re always accessible and your life is for display. With me it’s just about the responsibility I have to take in and being able to learn from my actions and being able to show people the good shit.
EBONY.com: Because if you leave it up to the media…
CB: If you leave it up to them you’ll be the worst dude in the world [laughs].
But for me, I’m not trying to woo the naysayers–there’s always going to be people with opinions all the time—for me it’s just being able to put the music out and letting it speak for itself.
EBONY.com: How have you negotiated the whole social media thing? You want to let your music speak for itself, but you also speak for yourself…
CB: Used to [cracks a knowing smile]. I detached myself from social media only because it just takes away the magic. Twitter is a good outlet for certain people, but I think for me and the message I’m trying to portray, it’s all about the music, the magic, and the creativity of what I’m doing.
If you show somebody how to do a magic trick, it’s not a magic trick anymore.
[I wonder if Chris also detached himself from Twitter because of his memorable tweet beefs. He insists it’s about preserving the mystery, but I’m not so sure.]
EBONY.com: How do you prevent yourself from clapping back like you always have in the past, though?
CB: You gotta kind of take it with a grain of salt. I can go through a list of a hundred occasions where the story hasn’t been true. Sometimes you might get a true story every now and then, so you have to take it with a grain of salt.
I’m shifting to what I’m focused on—my music and my painting. For right now, that’s all they need to know. Everything else is pretty much out there. I think when they hear this album they’ll be able to identify with—I’m not saying my side of things, I’m not trying to get an approval—but they can understand what I’m talking about.
EBONY.com: So the first single, “Fine China,” feels very old school and I got an instant Michael Jackson vibe. What were some of the influences on this album?
CB: I don’t try to do as much listening to the radio and seeing what the other person is doing. For this album I went in with the Quincy Jones approach–lock out in one studio, I brought in various writers and producers, and we just created.
[Chris starts to relax and he uncrosses his arms. His body language also loosens up and it’s clear he’s much more comfortable talking about music than himself.]
For “Fine China,” I can see how you can see a Michael Jackson influence because a lot of my influences growing up were eclectic—Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins, Journey, Elton John, Boy George, Madonna, Michael Jackson, of course, Sam Cook, Pearl Jam. Different aspects of music shape the melodies in my head now. Whatever I have creatively that comes out is almost like me trying to make my own mark in the game by the influences I’ve had. With “Fine China” you can still feel that kinda “Off the Wall” Michael Jackson vibe [Chris snaps his fingers and does a little dance], but it’s still new and up to date. I really wanted to kind of bring that essence of music back with that single. When you go through the album it’s diverse, it doesn’t just have that one sound.
EBONY.com: The title track ‘X’ was very introspective in terms of subject matter. Is that the Breezy we’re going to be getting from now on? Very open about his feelings?
CB: With me, over the three or four year processing whatever my trials and tribulations have been, I’ve been focused on the wrong thing. I’ve been focused on being sheltered or being a recluse, and not trying to be as vocal or express my feelings. But I think now I’ve been able to channel that and mature a little more and find out how to put it in my music.
And with X, I’m not looking back at the past, that’s what the past is for. I’m looking toward the future—toward everything that’s going to elevate me mentally and physically.
EBONY.com: Until now, you haven’t been doing interviews; so are you ready to get back out there and talk to people when they’re probably going to press you about things from the past?
CB: I think I’m more in a comfortable spot. I’ll also try to make the right choices, but it’s always going to be that one journalist or someone who wants to make their career off of the slip up. So I just have to be cognizant of it and realize that everybody has an opinion, everybody has a view on how they view things. I can’t judge or blame them for how they view anything. I just have to be myself the best I can and hopefully their perception won’t be as negative as what people say.
[Despite claiming that the opinions of others don’t bother him, it’s clear that it does. He’s brought it up several times during our chat, so it’s clearly on his mind. Perhaps this explains why he’s been mum toward the media, but he seems ready to open up—just a little bit—now.]
EBONY.com: How would you define yourself?
CB: One word? Passionate. That’s what drives me. I’m passionate about everything. I think I just wear my heart on my sleeve, so it shows every time I put my hand on something, I try to give 110-percent. If I paint, if I write, if I act, if I dance, I try to give it my all.
For me it’s more of a showing block. To show the 7-year-old kid or the 15-year-old ambitious young student who wants to go to film school or wants to do anything they want to…for me it’s like, “I can do it.” I want to show the people that are coming up, because I’m not going to be doing it forever. So hopefully the influences that I create with my music and the positive stuff that I do will shape our future. And hopefully that’s what it’s about. It’s about learning and giving your experiences to the next [generation].
EBONY.com: So it sounds like you’re embracing the whole role model label…
CB: Loosely. I would say, loosely.
I do a lot of charitable stuff that I don’t try to put out there to get a pat on the back for; I do my own thing. But in the process, everything I do is positive. I don’t have a negative focus. I don’t want to influence [my fans] to do the wrong thing or promote anything that’s negative. So with my music, responsibility is the key. It’s a big responsibility to excite people, to make people love my music, to make people happy, smile, whatever the case may be. So with that responsibility it’s almost like hmm I can’t do too much, but as a young man I’m going to live my life and have diversity and have obstacles that come and I have to overcome them.
A role model is something I can aspire to be.
[Call me crazy, but I start to believe him…]
EBONY.com: What else do you wish people knew about you?
CB: Umm….[Chris exhales loudly and takes a long pause]. That’s a good question.
[He struggles to come up with the answer. After opening up, he seems guarded again and I can tell he’s not quite sure how he wants to answer this question.]
I mean…I don’t have an ambition of them knowing, or having to know…because I feel like a naysayer or a person with an opinion is just that, a person with an opinion. I respect it; constructive criticism is great all of the time. I really would want them to identify with the music, and identify with the different aspects of my creativity. That’s it. And I’m not just saying, “Give me a pat on the back and say I’m doing good,” but actually just see it and honestly appreciate it for what it is. Instead of personal situations they might blame me for, or a life experience that you wish you took back when you was young. [Nervous laughter.]
But as of now, it’s just about moving forward and fully being able to do that with my music.