Freedom, Fatherhood & The Future: Chris Brown Is Breaking Bad
Three weeks ago, Chris Brown didn’t exactly f**k with VIBE. In December 2009, the magazine and the then-troubled singer were both staged for their respective comebacks, but the joint return of music’s prodigal son and hip-hop’s prodigal publication was not one of glory. Unwillingly forced to don the inquiry “R U STILL DOWN?” on his black t-shirt, and forcibly pinned against his split cover with Drake, who was adversely labeled “Unstoppable,” Brown felt betrayed. One month after its release, the singer expressed his displeasure with the lead image and story, claiming that its concept was not the one agreed upon. “I appreciate any cover,” he said then. “I just don’t appreciate them using my situation.” It was the last time the two collaborated–until today.
Six years later, a blue moon of sorts emerges onto the horizon, as a host of happenings occur that no one truly anticipated. Dry, warm Hollywood, California is unseasonably rainy and chilly, and Brown is early for his 8 p.m. call time, milling about the hardwood of a non-descript studio, sifting through a rack of clothing and accessories for another VIBE cover shoot. Clad in distressed jeans, a plain white t-shirt, orange Tampa Bay Buccaneers throwback Starter jacket and a pair of highly sought-after white Supreme Jordans, the music phenom is calm and collected, and his shoulder is outwardly void of chips. No longer a defenseless young’n’, the singer/dancer turned multi-art hyphenate is in command and ready to make amends on his own terms.
“In the past, I don’t think I was able to capitalize fully off of the exposure that was given to me by VIBE,” he says matter-of-factly. “And I don’t think the direction focused on the road to redemption; it was more so on the controversy and the bulls**t that was going on in my life. Along with VIBE and other various different people and other things, I just separated myself from a lot of negative things, or things that I feel that I couldn’t be protected under.”
Now, at 26 years old with an impressive ten-year career under his belt, Brown is in the position to protect himself–literally. Propping open a jewelry box filled with his own diamond-encrusted pieces, including a wildly oversized championship-style “OHB” pinky ring (which stands for One Hunnid Billion, Outta Here Bitch and various other creative concoctions), an iced-out Allen Iverson logo pendant and a host of other blinding chains and bracelets, Brown incredulously answers an inquiry on the whereabouts of a lock for the case that houses such prized possessions. “A lock? For what? I can fight,” he says, flashing his 1000-watt grin. This is the essence of today’s Brown: confident, comfortable and unapologetically open to life’s lessons. And in order to grasp this updated version of everybody’s favorite crooner to hate, one must forget what they think they know. Dispose of the headlines. Dump the assumptions. Discard the labels. Seeing the sum of Chris Brown’s parts on this Thursday night requires the art of letting go. With pretenses set aside, an objective fly on the wall would be admittedly impressed watching Breezy in his milieu as a professional. In a room manned by a stylist, publicist, photographer and editor-in-chief, he is choosing his own clothes, setting up his own shots and peering at proofs. He’s also holding a rather informed conversation about celebrities’ impact on fashion over the years. And in between setting the stage for the task at hand, Chris is also discussing upcoming designs for Black Pyramid, his own line.
But he doesn’t characterize any of this as exerting creative control. “I think creative control is kind of like the total opposite from me. It’s just freedom,” he says, marking the first of 20 times he would refer to being free. “A lot of my doubts–or a lot of the doubts that are put upon us as people or individuals–I don’t funnel that to make my life move. The way I look at it is, I’m fearless.”
“It’s not my job to be your role model; my job is to be your inspiration.” – Chris Brown
Either f-words–free or fearless–are commendable labels for Brown to have named and claimed. Of the decade-long stretch since his 2005 debut, Brown has spent the last seven years on an uphill climb, from the celebrity domestic violence case heard ‘round the world to a stint in rehab to a probation violation that landed him in jail for 103 days. Free and fearless? The nerve of this guy. Judging by his body language he is, as he squats down on a wooden box next to an open awning-covered window that allows the sound of traffic on Cole Avenue to seep through. Chris Brown is finally at ease with being Chris Brown: good, bad and ugly included. Now, he asserts, his only mission is to inspire, a word that will also come up a number of times. Sixteen to be exact.
“It’s not my job to be your role model; my job is to be your inspiration. There’s a difference,” he says precisely, with a piercing gaze. “You can be that rose in the concrete, or you can be that underdog, or you can be that person that people already cast out, and still be able to maintain and live your life, understand change, and make a difference.” The lofty rhetoric of Chris Brown 2.0 is filled with pronouncements like, “At the end of the day, the only thing you can do is fail,” “Everything starts with an idea,” “I’m just a vessel” and “I don’t give a f**k,” and they all seem to barrel down the same genuine lane from which his provocative art flows. With his creative passions fluidly–and successfully–weaving through music, dance, video directing and visual arts, even his detractors cannot deny that Chris is a truly talented artist through and through. It also shouldn’t be as easy as it is to dismiss his impact; the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter has assassinated the charts, transforming R&B for ages to come by injecting the genre with pop, EDM, dubstep, reggae, hip-hop and everything in between. This remarkable feat is not an easy sell to an R&B purist.
One such purist is Mark Pitts, president of urban music at Brown’s RCA Records homebase. Credited with helping to launch the singer into superstardom, Pitts was also a key component of the almighty Bad Boy era, having partnered with Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs to manage the careers of The Notorious B.I.G. and Faith Evans. Pitts recalls meeting Brown for the first time as a talkative teenager with his shoelaces tied around his ankles, a smile that reminded him of his son, and the voice and hunger needed to land a win. Through the years, Pitts admits that Brown has pushed his limits, forcing the seasoned industry exec to draw outside of the proverbial lines. Take Brown’s rapping, for example. Pitts was not immediately a fan. “I used to fight him on it,” he recalls. “Early on, when he was rapping on records, I was trying to keep it at, ‘You’re a singer.’ I was caught up in the idea of ‘Stay in your lane.’ But he got so good at it that I was like ‘Oh my god, you truly rap! You damn-near rapping nicer than a lot of these rappers!’” But it was deeper than rap. According to Pitts, Brown had managed to garner a position that a precious few progressive black acts can pull off: the audience allegiance necessary to allow for experimentation. “When the fans and the people connect to the person, the artist, it could take them down any musical path,” Pitts notes. “He could do any type of record, and you still feel Chris. But I have other artists that try other records, and it just doesn’t work because you don’t believe them.”
Fortunately for him, faith in Brown is not just a practice of his following, whom he affectionately refers to as “Team Breezy.” Singer/songwriter Sevyn Streeter, a signee to his CBE imprint, attributes her own multi-faceted approach to music to working with Brown. Having penned tracks for the likes of Alicia Keys, Kelly Rowland, Trey Songz, Tamar Braxton and a host of other artists, Streeter says one thing sets Chris apart. “He’s probably the only artist that I’ve worked with that we can literally write three songs in one session, and one of the records is going to be an R&B record, the next record is going to be a big pop, dance, EDM-type record, the next record is going to be some acoustic, country-sounding record. And he owns all of them.”
“When the fans and the people connect to the person, the artist, it could take them down any musical path.” – Mark Pitts
According to Brown, however, defining his music as anything other than soul is crude and cynical. The singer defines soul as an inclination to feel something, anything. Using his hands to gesticulate his ideology, Brown offers a complex yet simple idea: “Soul” is not reserved to one genre of music, one form of art or one situation. “When they say soul, they give it a collard greens, chitlins kind of feel, but it’s different. What soul is, is that unconditional emotion you emit when you’re at a concert, or when you’re watching your favorite person do a TV show. Or if you got somebody that you love, you could be sitting there, and for no reason, you just smile. It might not even be a song, but just right now, something’s telling me to give a great energy off, negative or positive. What that is, we don’t identify it, but that’s our soul.” Brown’s musical palette ranges from mainstream icons like Phil Collins and Bruce Springsteen to leaders of the new school like PARTYNEXTDOOR and Bryson Tiller, so his description of soul as “not a black and white thing” is no surprise. Whether or not he extracts the fatback and collard greens from his tunes though, Chris Brown knows he’s still a black man in America.
On a late-night November Twitter rant, Brown professed his willingness to model the “black male stereotype.” Speaking his 140-character peace on war, government and hatred, the singer concluded that he would “proudly” bear the weight of the descriptor, because he is “able to connect with the people society doesn’t give a f**k about.” Just last week, yet another screed found him comparing Meek Mill’s impending sentencing to the case of Freddie Gray. Still crouching on the wooden box in the photo studio, Brown mentions being a young black male, reiterating his social media sentiments aloud before a question is even asked. “I’m the general statistic of the young black male: a father out of wedlock, tattoos, sags my pants, hangs with people that would be called outcasts, been to jail, has a criminal record.” But as the discussion shifts to the onslaught of police brutality against his not-famous peers, Brown’s response is layered with conflicting sensibilities. On one hand, he’s not responsible for speaking out against injustice because he isn’t running for office. On the other, he separates his celebrity status from his personal thoughts and feelings. On yet another, he urges black people to “stick together” and laments the absence of “black leaders.” Admittedly operating in an industry and society “convoluted as prisoners to our own materialism,” Brown contends, “If I can complain about the diamonds not being bright enough on my chain or my ring, I should also be fighting just as hard to put somebody else in a house, helping somebody that’s homeless, feeding somebody, showing my concerns.” Not exactly the next champion of the movement, but it’s his way.
Becoming a father is the most recent development arc in Brown’s ever-evolving story. After a month of speculation earlier this year, he took to Instagram to confirm the news to the masses with a photo of his now one-year-old daughter, Royalty. The caption of the post simply read, “God has blessed me with my twin.” Though mostly met with “aww’s,” Chris Brown The Father was a curveball for fans and spectators alike. When the rumors began to swirl, Brown was publicly involved in an on-again off-again relationship with Karrueche Tran, pointing to signs of infidelity during their troubled courtship. Little was (and still is) known about Brown’s child’s mother, 31-year-old Nia Guzman. Exposé-style “what we know so far” stories spun a soap opera tale. Betrayal between Tran and Guzman, who were once photographed together. Beef between Brown, Guzman’s ex-husband and her boyfriend. Money-motivated custody woes. Even today, the backstory details remain unclear. And, at least for now, private.
Brown recalled suspecting that baby Royalty was his daughter before he knew for sure. “I had thought about it. I had saw pictures, and I was like ‘Damn.’ So I asked, and [Nia] was like ‘Nah, it’s not you.’ So I was like cool, I didn’t think it was an issue. But when I found out, it was kind of like, ‘Damn, she looks just like me.’ And I didn’t care about how me and her mother didn’t have a relationship, I didn’t care about any situation. I just wanted to see her. I just wanted to be able to have that opportunity, as something personal to me. I’m not gonna be upset, I’m not gonna be mad. I have to be honest with myself and pick the priorities over the situation. I had to make my priority my daughter.”
Navigating the ins-and-outs of fatherhood now finds the singer tapping his own parents as his compass. Since his early days, Brown has shared that his mother, Joyce Hawkins, endured domestic violence at the hands of his stepfather, but he makes it plain that his biological father is another breed of man. Dubbing Clinton Maurice Brown the “dark-skinned version” of himself, Chris’ artistic ways stem back to his dad, who apparently knows his way around the dance floor as well. The Brown men fall on opposite sides of the spectrum with regards to the law, however: Clinton is a former police officer and retired correctional officer, Chris a convicted felon. “It’s kind of like being the preacher’s son,” is how the latter describes the anomaly. “But I had to honestly do that for me to learn. I had to touch the stove to see if it was hot, because there were probably restrictions and limitations that they would give me as a kid, so I would just rebel.” With his mom, Chris’ power struggle happened later in life. “She spent most of her life trying to take care of me, and I think once I got famous and I had a position, I spent most of my life trying to take care of her. So we would fight, and I would rebel. Because as a man, I wanted to be the one [making] the rules. But I’m still her son.” These days Brown has a stronger relationship with his parents thanks to Royalty, who he plans to raise in the spotlight with a clear-cut strategy: “You just surround her with love, and you just be honest.”
“I had to make my priority my daughter.” – Chris Brown
That white-hot spotlight has not always been sympathetic to Brown, a recurring theme in the visual art he produces under his moniker, Konfuzed. In a collaboration with street artist Kai Aspire back in February for Fine Art Auctions Miami’s Urban and Street Art Exhibit and Auction, Brown infused his graffiti into Kai’s signature motifs. In a piece titled Lies vs Life, an acrylic paint version of Chris is set parallel to an aerosol paint monster, as both are bombarded with microphones and recorders from cartoon journalists. Kai shared a photo of the piece on Instagram with a lengthy caption about its significance and message. “Don’t always believe what you read,” he wrote. “The media has taken a living legend, and turned him into a monster. He’s extremely humble down to earth and has wisdom beyond his years. These two pieces were created to give you the contrast between the LIES and real LIFE.” The same theme was used in Brown’s collaborations with art icon Ron English, who designed the cover for his 2011 studio album, F.A.M.E. A year after the two worked on the album cover, they teamed up yet again for a line of limited edition collectible toys called Dum English. “With the toy, we were talking about the idea of how fame isolates you,” English said, on the opening night of his NeoNature: We Are The New They exhibit in Los Angeles. “Everybody loves the astronaut, everybody wants to launch the astronaut into space, but once you get into space, it’s a kind of loneliness that people don’t understand.” English recalled a toy signing in New York City following the release of Dum English, where he witnessed a series of girls hyperventilate and pass out at the sight of Chris Brown as security guards proceeded to catch them mid-fall. “Evidently,” he concluded, “this happens a lot.”
His freedom and fearlessness notwithstanding, Chris Brown submits to one single force: God. At the height of his frustrations in life, Brown would ask Him age-old inquiries like, “Why won’t you talk to me?” Having done most of his thinking about life’s deepest questions in a jail cell, Brown now chooses to relish in gratitude. “I’m going to do what God allows. And if God don’t want it, He’ll put a stop to that motherf**ker right away. But right now, he’s letting me get it off. I’m gonna utilize the time that He’s given me to just inspire.” In discussing his relationship with the Creator and what he prays for, his inner ghetto Gandhi takes center stage. “You’re letting n***as see, like ‘Whoa, this black failure just keeps creeping through the cracks. What the f**k is it?’ It’s freedom, free will and nonstop belief and hope in God.”
You’re a God-fearing man, right?
Absolutely. That’s the only thing I fear.
Do you pray?
I pray everyday, I think we pray unconsciously too.
What do you pray for?
I don’t pray for success. I pray for knowledge for understanding and peace of mind. I really try to pray for that because it’s a big world, and you can get wrapped up in it trying to please every city. So I just try to get a peace of mind and me understanding that being at peace with my flaws and my talents. I’m cool with that. That’s why I think once He shows me certain things, or even the choices that I make, and decisions that I make that are healthy for me. He shows me the right path. When I bless other people, He always blesses me. It’s not even about a self-serving journey; it’s about just learning. I want to learn people’s experiences. I want to give them experiences too. It’s not a new awakening; it’s just me finding out who I am, like “F**k it. I know who I am now. And I’m cool with understanding everything.”
But for clarity’s sake, Brown warns not to take his newfound zen out of context. “See now, the zen gets confused when a motherf**ker might cuss somebody out. Nah, I’m 100-percent passionate, and at ease with the fact that I might be a little bit crazy.” At this point, most people would be inclined to agree. After all, genius and insanity are usually close companions.
“Everybody loves the astronaut, everybody wants to launch the astronaut into space, but once you get into space, it’s a kind of loneliness that people don’t understand.” – Ron English
Judging by his seventh studio album, Chris Brown is not in love–at least not in a romantic sense. Royalty is not only a pure, palpable display of his “outside of the box” approach to music, but also seemingly a screenshot of his current emotional state. A stark contrast to 2014’s X, which included professions of affection like “Lost In Ya Love,” “Time For Love” and “Don’t Be Gone Too Long,” Royalty waves goodbye to amour on its way out the door. Brown separates himself from his tumultuous relationship with Tran on “KAE,” an open letter to his ex in which he declares, “We were meant to fall, fall right out of love.” On “Proof,” a track penned by Tiller, Brown bears its burden as he tries to convince his mate to offer her trust. “Zero” serves as a high-intensity curve, marking his absences of f**ks for adoration unreturned, while “Discover” finds him futilely yearning for the second chance he doesn’t deserve. Fresh off his second high-profile breakup, Breezy’s heart has left his sleeve’s surface and been channeled to his newest obsession, underscored by the album’s most tender track: “Little More (Royalty),” which was brought to life via tender moments with his sweet-faced baby girl, revealed in a five-minute visual delight that shows heartstrings no mercy. As evidenced by his uninhibited joy as he sips toy tea cups and blows bubbles alongside his album’s namesake, for Brown, this love looks to be the real thing.
His affairs of the heart on the back burner, Brown sticks to the absence of a sonic script on Royalty, instead fusing genre after genre into the 18-track opus. His manager, Mike G, admits that the goal on Chris’ seventh go-round is international appeal. Tapping into the grooves of the greats, Brown offers an updated version of what took legends from their hometowns to the world stage. “He wanted to deliver that feel-good and deliver those types of pop records that were very James Brown and Michael Jackson, like ‘Zero’ and ‘Fine By Me,’ that are very edgy,” Mike says. “I think that was the vision going into this album: to deliver something on a worldwide level.” Royalty is set to have an international EP release on Christmas Day, available exclusively to fans in Canada, Australia, United Kingdom and Ireland. Chris Brown doesn’t give a f**k about your chitlins.
As the photographer clicks away, Brown’s awareness of his body and face is unmistakable. Organic. Captivating. Moving from goofy comical expressions and carefree smiles to dramatic postures and intense gazes with equal ease, it’s clear that he’s been comfortable with being on physical display for some time, even before signing a record deal. He recalls preparing for the limelight as a child, spending way more time posing in mirrors than normal, as onlookers watched in curiosity. Now, stripped of his manicured cover shoot looks and back to the comfort of a military-style jacket, jeans and Jordans, Brown is a bit more subdued, humble even. He’s reluctant to discuss his impact in too much depth, turning his freckled face at the mere idea of besting one of his favorites.
At 16 years old, Brown simply wanted to get the girls to like him and buy his mother a house. Fast forward to him at 26, and Breezy is carving an indelible musical mark similar to the ones left by greats like Usher, whose classic nod to Clockwork Orange in “My Way,” and beanie phase in “U Remind Me” Brown still cites as inspirations, even as the two have become collaborators (“New Flame”) and friends. Presented with the mind-boggling calculation that he has achieved more Top 75 singles than Usher in half of his career span, Brown shrugs off the numbers and deflects the credit. “If it wasn’t for Usher, then Chris Brown couldn’t exist,” he maintains. “When I would look at Usher, I would be like ‘F**k, he has it.’ The only other guy that I looked at like that was Michael Jackson.” But truth be told, someone will look at Chris Brown in the same way one day. “I don’t think we’ll see another Chris Brown for a really long time, and when we do, it still won’t be a Chris Brown; it’ll be somebody that was influenced by him,” Streeter says. “The amount of talent in one being, only God can give that to him. As much as he goes through in life, people try to knock him down, they could never take away what God has placed inside of him.”
Brown is not a fan of calling himself a vet, though a decade-long tenure in the music-game trenches is no easy feat, especially given his trials. To him, that word is reserved for the “well off.” He pauses to carefully consider the answer to a final question on what he believes his legacy will be. “Certain people will look at different legacies,” he begins. “Some people might say that Chris Brown is going down in history for hitting a woman. Or some might say that Chris Brown might go down as one of the greatest who ever did it. But I’m cool either way. Because at the end of the day, somebody learned a greater lesson.”
Photographed by Peter Dokus, Styled by EJ King, Grooming by Jessica Quezada and JC Hammons
Moschino shopping bag tee
– Zara pants
– Dots eyewear
– Vintage Stone Cold Steve Austin hat by All To Envy
Grey teddy bear Joy Rich crew sweater
– Zara cargo pants
– Limited edition pink New Balance
Tom Ford military jacket
– Harold Kensington hooded extended cut off pullover
– Army green Philip Lim vest
– Zara jeans
– Supreme Jordans
Grey Harold Kensington hooded extended cut off pullover
– Joy Rich pullover
– Zara jeans
– Supreme Jordans
***All jewelry is personally owned