How Chris Brown Got Out of Purgatory

Chris Brown is back. It’s hard to believe — maybe harder to accept — but somewhere amid his latest string of top ten singles, it became indisputably true. How the hell did that happen? Ahead of tomorrow’s release of his new album, F.A.M.E., Vulture traced the comeback, and realized that Brown managed the startling reversal without ever doing the one thing everyone always assumed he’d have to: successfully apologize (that is, apologize while being perceived as sincere) for his assault on Rihanna. Counterintuitively, the less Brown tried to nail an apology, and the more he focused on reclaiming his former persona — basically, a ruthless pop-star cad, aggressively seducing and cycling through women — the better off he was in the public eye. Seriously.

Brown attacked Rihanna on February 8, 2009, in a rented silver Lamborghini, after leaving Clive Davis’s pre-Grammy party. Hours after the incident, he turns himself into the LAPD. An avalanche of public outrage ensues. Radio stations pull his music from their playlists. Wrigley’s gum immediately drops him as a celebrity spokesman. Jay-Z, Rihanna’s mentor, is rumored in particular to be out for blood. Within the month, it’s reported that Brown has voluntarily enrolled in anger-management classes; nearly every news report includes a mention that it’s at the behest of his crisis-PR expert, Michael Sitrick.

By the end of May 2009, Brown breaks his public silence with an awkward web-cam video shot in his personal bowling alley. His response — “Everybody that’s haters, they just been haters. I ain’t no monster. All the blog sites are liars” — is shot through with plugs for his latest album. Typical comment from “this guy isn’t in jail yet?” In July, Brown delivers an explicit apology video that conforms to the standard crisis-management template: take responsibility (“I am very sad and very ashamed of what I’ve done. No one is more disappointed than in me than I am”). He also claims that his lawyers had, until then, advised against the apology. But it’s mostly for naught: The move is perceived as insincere, not much more than a choreographed PR move. At the time, E!’s Marc Malkin says Brown’s career will probably never recover: “I just don’t think it’s possible. No matter how many times he apologizes, he is forever tainted.”

In August, Brown is sentenced to five years probation, 1,400 hours in “labor-oriented service,” and a restraining order against getting within 50 yards of Rihanna. His official hour-long mea culpa comes soon after, on Larry King Live, where he appears alongside his mother and his lawyer and says, “I have told Rihanna countless times, and I’m telling you today, that I’m truly, truly sorry. And [I’m sorry] that I wasn’t able to handle the situation both differently and better.” He also claims not to remember the incident and takes pains to portray it as an isolated event. Gawker’s response is representative: “While surely he and his publicity team thought tonight’s appearance would help rehabilitate his image, Brown’s overall emotionlessness will likely only strengthen the image of him as a villain. Too bad, because we used to really like him. Now he just looks like a jerk.” Even his light-blue bow tie comes in for mocking.

Amid the vitriol, Brown pushes through with his purported “comeback” album, Graffiti, which drops in December. It’s not significantly different from his first two well-received albums, but the critical response is scathing. (The Metacritic score is 30.) The L.A. Times’ Mikael Wood writes, “a handful of lovingly arranged power ballads were evidently designed to illuminate the singer’s remorse over the Rihanna incident. Yet Brown doesn’t seem up to the task of contrition.”

To promote Graffiti, Brown kicks off a “fan appreciation” tour that hits smaller venues than he usually plays, with portions of the proceeds going to the Jenesse Center, a domestic-violence charity. He follows that up with ugly rants via various social-networking platforms, first accusing stores of not shelving his albums, and later accusing radio stations of blacklisting his singles. It seems to signify his current state in the music industry: increasingly, and presumably irrevocably, isolated.

But then: In June 2010, Brown appears at the BET awards and, while performing a dance tribute to Michael Jackson, bursts into tears in its finale. His colleague Trey Songz comments, “He left his heart on the stage. He gave genuine emotion.” There’s still some mocking; Us Weekly, hilariously, reports that Brown may have applied eye drops backstage to achieve the desired effect. Still, for the first time in months, Brown also hears public praise. Note that this reversal does not in any way involve him opening his mouth to speak.

Not long after, the comeback fully swings into gear with the release of “Deuces.” A callous breakup single (“you’ll regret the day when I find another girl / Who knows just what I mean / When I tell her keep it drama free”), it’s exactly the kind of song a public-relations expert would probably caution Brown against releasing. But once again, embracing his unapologetic persona leads to his biggest hit since 2008: With radio stations back on board, “Deuces” goes to No. 1 on the hip-hop charts and No. 14 on the “Hot 100.” A star-studded remix — featuring Kanye West, Rick Ross, Fabolus, Andre 3000, and even Drake, who dated Rihanna after Brown — further chips away at the ostracization.

The comeback continues with the October release of unabashed party song “Yeah 3x.” Sample lyrics: “You like to drink / so do we / grab more bottles / bring them to me.” It reaches No. 7 on the U.S. pop charts. In February, Brown performs the song, along with “No B.S.,” on Saturday Night Live. It’s a booking that would have been tough to imagine a year ago. His stripped-down performance, a showcase for Brown’s still-dazzling dance moves, is well-reviewed. He once again wears a bow tie for a prominent national TV appearance, but this time no one really gives him any shit for it.

Earlier this month, a nude photo of Brown stepping out of the shower leaks — or, as many presume, is purposely released to drum up some noise. Either way, it’s effective, providing salacious fodder for the interviewers on the promo run for F.A.M.E. By the way, the album title, amazingly, stands for Forgiving All My Enemies. The album itself does display stray bits of humility — on one song, Brown explains to a love interest that he’s okay with waiting until she feels comfortable to get in the bedroom — but it’s mostly his usual roster of easy-to-digest sex songs, party songs, and love ballads.

The vocal detractors are still there, but Brown looks to be replicating the trajectory established by R. Kelly: Album buyers are aware the singer has massive personal failings when it comes to his relationship with women, but willingly consume his accomplished music, in which he brags about his relationships with women. At this point, the cultural reimmersion is nearly complete: Earlier this year, Rihanna even released him from his restraining order.

How Chris Brown Got Out of Purgatory