Brown was born in 1989 in a small Virginia town called Tappahannock, with a population of just 2,000. His mother worked in a daycare facility, his father as a corrections officer in a local prison, and they had one other child, his older sister. When Brown was two, he began copying Michael Jackson’s dance moves, and was soon singing in his church choir and competing in local talent shows. His parents divorced when he was seven, and before long he and his sister and mother were living with her new husband in a trailer park, where in the past he has described lying in bed listening to his stepfather beat his mother.
I ask him to tell me a bit about his childhood. What’s his earliest memory? “I remember my kindergarten teacher made me count pennies and see how much did it add up to, and then I just remember her telling my mom, ‘He’s a smart kid.’ When I was three, I remember being at a daycare centre and having to stay in a room with a bunch of little kids my age, but I just felt like, OK, I know what I’m doing, I know how to unlock the gate, I know how to get out. My mom told me as a youngster I was always intellectual, like as far as being able to adapt fast and quick. But I had a fun childhood, went to regular school.”
He lost his virginity when he was eight years old, to a local girl who was 14 or 15. Seriously? “Yeah, really. Uh-huh.” He grins and chuckles. “It’s different in the country.” Brown grew up with a great gang of boy cousins, and they watched so much porn that he was raring to go. “By that point, we were already kind of like hot to trot, you know what I’m saying? Like, girls, we weren’t afraid to talk to them; I wasn’t afraid. So, at eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it. You can be the best at it.” (Now 24, he doesn’t want to say how many women he’s slept with: “But you know how Prince had a lot of girls back in the day? Prince was, like, the guy. I’m just that, today. But most women won’t have any complaints if they’ve been with me. They can’t really complain. It’s all good.”)
By 12, he knew he wanted to be a singer. “I drew a lot of inspiration from the genuines, the Ushers, the Michael Jacksons, the James Browns, Sam Cooke. I was never afraid to take those steps or cross those boundaries of trying to be equal to those guys. I never doubted myself, and I thought if I’m going to do it, I’ve just got to work hard.”
And he did work hard, phenomenally so. Discovered by a record producer at 13, he was signed to Jive Records by 15 and a year later released his eponymous debut album, a smooth slice of commercial R&B that went double platinum and produced four top 10 singles. Brown spent the best part of the following two years on a tour bus conducting a relentless “meet and greet” campaign of promotional appearances in schools and shopping malls across the country. He launched his acting career, and two years later his second album, Exclusive, went double platinum, too. Brown has a perfectly competent voice, easy on the ear and agile enough to straddle R&B, dance and pop. He writes or co-writes a lot of his songs, can claim a string of acting credits and has a prodigious work ethic. But it’s the way he dances that marks him out, justifying any comparison to Michael Jackson: he is an effortlessly fluid and inventive performer.
Chris Brown and Rihanna
With Rihanna at a 2008 benefit concert. Photograph: Startraks Photo/Rex Features
By February 2009, still just 19, Brown was the crown prince of American R&B, with a pop princess girlfriend, Rihanna, on his arm. When both failed to show at the Grammy awards ceremony, rumours spread that the couple had rowed, but the news that he’d attacked her and been arrested sent the country into a degree of shock that’s hard to fathom without understanding the full cultural significance of both stars to many Americans. Brown was issued with a restraining order and sentenced to six months of community labour and five years on probation.
Former child stars often famously self-destruct in adulthood, so I ask if he thinks of himself in this category. “I guess people could say that. But the only thing that’s probably changed for me is just the facial hair a little bit. When I first came out, it was more of a young, warm, clean look. Very clean, very Disney.”
Does he ever wish, I try again, he’d had a chance to grow up in private? Does he regret fame coming so early?
"Honestly, where I’m from, probably not. I think me being able to travel from the small town I was from, me already having a good IQ, and you know being intelligent, and regular stuff, I just had to learn more and more of the street life, you know, how to manoeuvre around a room full of wolves."
He offers a slightly sour, dismissive shrug. “You know, whether it be naysayers, people that won’t say, ‘Hey, I like that.’ But as far as me being young, like, I don’t regret it, I love it, being able to accomplish my dreams at an early age. That’s just showing the kids that’s coming up in sixth or seventh grade, I can do this. If I really stick to it, I can do it. ‘Chris was my age when he did it.’”
The advice he’d give his 14-year-old self now is “pay attention to details, details, details. I’m 24 now, so I’m making sure I’m on top of it, but back then I was just, like, whatever we’re doing, I’m just glad to be here, you know?”
A sense of powerlessness can be a dangerous thing, so I wonder if he means he didn’t feel in control of his career?
"No, I think control, I definitely had that under wraps. I would pick the songs, write the treatments for the videos and co-direct them, but people didn’t know it because I would always give the director his credit and say I don’t need a co-directing credit. But actually I started getting behind the camera more, every video, the concepts, how the video’s coming together, what it’s about. I’ve always had that creative side."
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The search for explanations having proved fruitless, we talk about how his arrest and conviction affected him. “That was probably, like, one of the most troubling times in my life, because I was 18 or 19, so being able to feel the hatred from more adult people, you don’t understand it at the time, because you made a mistake.” But he knew one thing: “I’m going to come back, I know the music that I’m doing, how hard I work, is not just for nothing.” He found himself writing seven or eight songs a night, “just out of pure… I wouldn’t say heartbreak, but just pure ambition. To prove people wrong. So from there it wasn’t really a problem. I just focused on what was necessary, abiding by all the stuff I had to do legally and professionally.”
He has since released three more albums, and won a Grammy, but was incensed when in August a judge ordered a further 1,000 hours of community service. Prosecutors accused him of having claimed to clock up hours when he was actually abroad, or on camera performing on the other side of the country, and demanded jail. But Brown denied it and the additional 1,000 hours was the judge’s compromise ruling.
"But that’s not a compromise! Community service, that shit is a bitch. I’ll be honest – and you can quote me on that – that is a motherfucker there. For me, I think it’s more of a power trip for the DA. I can speak freely now, because I don’t really care what they say about it, but as far as, like, the 1,000 extra hours they gave me, that’s totally fricking bananas."
Did it seem vindictive to him? “Oh, absolutely. They want me to be the example. Young black kids don’t have the fairer chances. You can see Lindsay Lohan in and out of court every day, you see Charlie Sheen, whoever else, do what they want to do. There hasn’t been any incident that I started since I got on probation, even with the Frank Ocean fight, the Drake situation, all those were defence modes. People think I just walk around as the aggressor, this mad black guy, this angry, young, troubled kid, but I’m not. I’m more and more laid-back. It’s just that people know if they push a button, it’ll make more news than their music. Attaching themselves to me, good or bad, will benefit them.”
He says his court-ordered 52-week programme of anger management helped him learn to keep his temper. But then he adds, “I think the actual class I went to was a little bit sexist.” What does he mean? “It was beneficial because it made me cater more to a woman’s thoughts and a woman’s needs, and how to handle situations. But the class itself, no disrespect to the class, but the class itself only tells you you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong.” I ask him to elaborate, but he seems to check himself. “Well, I don’t want to get too far into that.”
He describes “the Rihanna incident” as “probably the biggest wake-up call for me. I had to stop acting like a little teenager, a crazy, wild young guy.” But when I ask if that’s how he thinks of himself when he looks back at that time, he snaps back, “No, not at all” as if the description had been mine and not his. “Cos you can talk with all my girls that I did mess with before, and it’s never been a violent history.” Then he switches again: “But at the same time, I learned from it, and it was almost like… I wouldn’t say it happened for a reason, but it was something to trigger my mind to be more of a mature adult. To handle myself in situations, don’t throw tantrums, don’t be a baby about it.”
He worries all the time that the paparazzi will make up a story and land him back in trouble. “We can be in the studio and they can be outside and run a story right now to say Chris Brown just beat up three old women back there, and stabbed the parking guy. No footage, no evidence, but I’d be in trouble.” This summer, he was taken to court over an alleged hit-and-run, which he accused the paparazzi of inventing; the charge was dismissed.
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We have a moment of minor farce when I ask if the paparazzi bother him outside his own home. “Nah, we run ‘em away from there. Yeah. I got a couple of guard dogs.” What kind, I ask, and he looks slightly confused. “Er, crazy.” What breed is that? “Not literally dogs I’m talking about. Just homies. They handle it.”
Brown’s band of loyal homies date from the aftermath of the assault on Rihanna. “They were there when nobody else was there, when I was at my lowest. The people that really cared, that’s who I hold dearest. And I root for the underdog, so I’m around the guys that… well, my friends aren’t the guys that society would label perfect. People kind of, like, look nervous when I’m going to walk in with all my friends. And I’m not even a rapper, I’m a singer,” he points out proudly. I ask if he likes knowing that people feel nervous. “No, it’s just what generally attracts me to my friends. I’m not going to stop being your friend because somebody doesn’t approve of it. That would be, like, almost being phoney to myself.”
Brown has two ambitions now. One is to be wealthy. “I don’t want to be rich, I want to be wealthy. There’s a difference, you know? I’m rich, but I’m not in the $200m mark.” The other is “to sell ground-breaking numbers on an album. Just to be able to have that moment to say, I did it. So as like, I have a stamp. I would really like to mean something to the world, instead of me just being this fungus.” Hang on a minute: fungus? “Yeah, like the decay of society. I don’t want to be the decay of society, I’d like to be the uplifting part.”
I don’t know if his new album will achieve either ambition, because his homies forgot to bring it along for him to play, and Brown’s description makes no sense. The album is called X because that’s the Roman numeral for 10, he explains, so, “I just tried to give people something that would have more meaning, more depth”, because his date of birth is 5.5.89, and if you add five plus five you get 10, “so it’s like 8, 9, 10.
Chris Brown feat. Aaliyah - Don’t Think They Know on MUZU.TV.
"So this album, creative-wise, is just musically sound, diverse, a lot of different genres attached themselves to the song, like, different fans. It doesn’t have to be necessarily a song for one race, it’s mostly for everybody. Just when you take those journeys through the X album, I mean, you start looking at certain songs, you’d be like, ‘Oh, I get that, I can relate to this song’ or, ‘Oh, I like this song. This sounds good.’ With this album I think it can just identify with any age group, with any race, with any culture."
It might be his last album, though, because he thinks the format is finished. “You can blame it on downloads, but the numbers are what they are. After this, maybe I’ll release a single every few months, or release a song; you’re still going to hear my music and videos.” His single sales still run into millions, he says, adding crossly, “But people won’t bring that up because of the album sales.”
Given his evident desire to leave the past behind him, I still can’t understand why last year he got a tattoo on his neck that looks just like the infamous police photographs of Rihanna’s bruised and battered face. He has always disputed the resemblance, insisting it’s just a “random woman”, so I ask if he’d realised it would be misconstrued and cause so much fuss.
"I really don’t care. A tattoo’s a tattoo; it’s my body, my skin."
Suddenly he is sulky and petulant. “My favourite line is, ‘Fuck you.’ I like giving the world a big fuck you. Every tattoo I have is a big fuck you. So it’s just, like, this is just me, and I’m the guy who’s going to be just the same guy at all times.”
But he’s talked a lot about how much he has changed, so people are bound to be confused about why he’d therefore choose a tattoo of that nature. “No,” he says coldly. “I think you misinterpret what nature that is. You think the tattoo is Rihanna’s face, but it’s not.”
But did he anticipate that people would mistake it for her? “I’ve just cleared this up, this is not Rihanna’s face,” he repeats sharply. “I just got a tat. Like I say, a tat is on my body, so it’s personal. I liked how it looked, so I thought I’d get it done. It’s all good.”
I try once more – had he known what people would think, would he have got the tattoo done anyway? – and he snaps.
"No, I’m not going to walk around every day of my life depending on the opinions of other people. Because if I do that, I’ll just be trying to please everybody and that’s not what I’m here for." He glowers. "Just make music. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, fuck you."
• X is out next month.