“I'm just trying to move forward and learn from every mistake," Chris Brown tells me as he explains the genesis of "X," his upcoming album.
It’s late March and Brown is at a Burbank studio previewing tracks from a record meant to jolt a career plagued by repeated scandal.
After numerous push-backs, “X” isn’t coming any time soon -- despite a handful of charting singles, high-profile collaborations and prime TV performances.
To satisfy patiently waiting fans, Brown issued a free mixtape, “X-Files,” on Tuesday (once a planned release date of "X").
Album postponements are common -- tracks are cut in the eleventh hour, guest features are secured, new singles are launched -- but Brown’s roll-out has faced a trickier hurdle: his ongoing legal troubles.
Since the mixtape arrived just days after the R&B; singer exited rehab -- and 24 hours before the first of two scheduled court dates -- it highlights the confounding position Brown has routinely found himself in since that night in 2009 when he brutally assaulted Rihanna: How can anyone focus on his new music?
After Brown's guilty plea to the felony assault and his closely watched on again-off again relationship with Rihanna since, a violent meltdown backstage at "Good Morning America,” frequent Twitter spats, a nightclub blowout with Drake, a parking lot melee with Frank Ocean and countless accusations of unsavory behavior, his name has become synonymous with trouble.
“X” was meant to reverse some of the damage to his severely tarnished image. The new album would remind the public that behind the incessant tabloid drama -- either warranted by his frequent missteps or propelled by ravenous gossipmongers targeting him -- was an undeniable talent.
The new mixtape is a grab bag of libidinous slow jams and bass-heavy club-thumpers that fans will certainly eat up. Ludacris and Kid Ink appear on the project. But the set, although a generous giveaway, isn’t nearly as striking as what Brown played for me in March.
Even if "X" was a stellar effort, the buildup for it has taken a backseat to legal woes for a singer who can’t afford any more trouble. And regardless of great singles such as the retro-dipped "Fine China,” the Aaliyah-assisted “Don’t Think They Know” or a bouncy club banger with Nicki Minaj, the kid is making it downright impossible to sell an album about “transitioning as a man and not trying to focus on the past stuff and trials and tribulations,” as Brown told me earlier this year.
"There was so much ... that was going on in my life. Fights and other stuff going on in the media. I got to the point where I didn't even want to leave the studio," Brown said during our conversation nearly eight months ago. "It's like I don't even want to go out and be seen. I don't want a new story to come out."
In conversation, he talked in earnest of wanting to move beyond the controversy and instead focus on crafting a deeply personal album. “I know there's always stories or this or that out about Chris Brown,” he admitted, “[but] whatever you think you know about me, just listen to the album."
But with every TMZ headline, boneheaded Twitter war, silly accusation or miscellaneous blip on his radar, you just want to shake some sense into Brown and scream at him and whoever is -- or isn’t -- advising him.
In late October, the singer and his bodyguard were arrested after what police said was a fracas with another man outside a hotel in Washington, D.C. The felony assault charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, and after pleading not guilty Brown was released on his own recognizance. But the arrest was just the latest in a string of incidents this year alone.
Prosecutors in L.A. accused him in February of failing to perform his community labor sentence as instructed in relation to the Rihanna case (he agreed to perform an additional 1,000 hours). And a judge briefly revoked the singer’s probation after a hit-and-run incident in July (that case was dismissed).
After his arrest in Washington, Brown opted to seek treatment at an undisclosed Malibu facility last month “to gain focus and insight into his past and recent behavior," a rep for the singer said.
But 16 days later, he’s out -- his rep said he is continuing an outpatient program and completing court-ordered community service for his 2009 case -- and there’s new music.
Despite whatever forgiveness Rihanna has afforded him, he will continue to be defined by what happened that night in 2009, the fairness of which is debatable. But professionally, it hasn’t mattered. His fans and peers love him.
Brown won his first Grammy in 2012 for his comeback record, "F.A.M.E.", and his last effort, 2012's "Fortune," reached No. 1.
The singer is also one of the most in-demand voices in music, lending his vocals to everyone from Brandy to Pusha T to Diddy to Pitbull to yes, even Rihanna, whose fourth collaboration with Brown since the 2009 incident is slated to appear on “X.”
Although Brown has ignored detractors and continues to pump out new material, this time, it truly feels inappropriate and too soon to be listening to his music -- even if the cover of “X-Files” cheekily depicts an animated Brown wearing a straight jacket.
Sure, his fans took to Twitter late Monday and much of Tuesday to buzz about the project as blogs posted the mixtape for downloading. But none of them asked the pressing question -- what happens next?
Brown, who is still on five years' probation from the 2009 assault case, is due in an L.A. court Wednesday for a probation hearing. If he is found to have violated it, he could face up to four years in jail. And then on Monday, he'll face a Washington, D.C., court on the misdemeanor simple assault charge. He faces up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted in that case.
Brown is talented, yes, but this is a time when he should turn off the music and focus on getting himself together, away from the spotlight. Go away and return triumphant, and more important, healed.
At the listening session, the album’s title track was most revealing.
The Diplo-produced song starts as a slow-burning confessional, with Brown taking full responsibility for his troubles. And right as the self-loathing edges toward desperation, the track explodes into a blistering proclamation of a man who wants change.
"You can start a fight, I ain't fighting back," he sings, "I swear to God I'm moving on."
Brown can surely pull off a redemptive album. He’s done it before. But he can’t expect the public to move on if he hasn’t yet.