Like the day an 11-year-old Brown made a promise to his mother. He vowed that he would go to jail by age 15 for killing his abusive stepfather. “I just want you to know that I love you,” he told her in GIANT. “But I’m gonna take a baseball bat one day while you at work, and I’m gonna kill him.” Brown’s parents had separated when he was seven. When his mother remarried, she moved her son and his new stepfather to a trailer park. Then his stepfather shot himself in the head. The shot went straight through the eyes. He survived the suicide attempt but was permanently blinded.
“When you’re blind, your senses are heightened, like your smell, hearing, your sense of touch,” Brown explains to GIANT. “You can move and maneuver around your sight. But he used to hit my mom…. He made me terrified all the time, terrified like I had to pee on myself. I remember one night he made her nose bleed. I was crying and thinking, ‘I’m just gonna go crazy on him one day…’ I hate him to this day.”
And for the entire story, read below:
As his young world spins on an axis of fame, money and music — getting advice from everyone from Usher to Michael Jackson — rising superstar Chris Brown wants to balance the normal and the crazy. Who says it can’t be done?
“You’ve got too much rotation on the ball!” shouts Chris Brown’s security guard from the bench. “You gotta let it flow!”
“I can’t help it,” the teenage superstar snaps back from the court as he shakes his wrist. “I jerked off before I got here.”
Playing point guard with the swagger of a young Rucker Park champ, tattooed arms and all, the six-foot-one 18-year-old has nice ball handle, an even nicer jump shot and makes a few slick steals on D. He’s also an entertainer on the court: While a player from the other team shoots free throws, Brown is mid-court, break-dancing. And a trash-talker: He argues with the scorekeeper and the ref. On the bench after fouling for the fourth time in the first half, he shouts, “The ref’s shorts is cutting off his circulation!”
Chris Brown is in baggy shorts and a jersey in the basement gym of an Upper West Side school for a Basketball City league game. There are no screaming fans, no girls tearing off their panties in the crowd. In fact, there’s no crowd at all except his old friend Monet Sealey, two bodyguards and a teammate’s girlfriend. Nonetheless, Brown is playing like there’s a trophy to win. After his spell on the bench, he returns to the game and starts raining baskets-three in a row, then four, then five, which still doesn’t stop Monet from screaming at him: “Follow your shot boy, even if you think you gonna make it!” (“If you want to write a story about Chris Brown, here’s your story,” Monet says. “All you gotta say is Chris Brown is a silly teenage kid, who ain’t never gonna grow up.” Dribbling down the court, Brown throws a goofy, sarcastic expression at Monet, as if proving her point, then nails a jump shot.)
Brown’s team wins 70 to 54. He takes off his yellow jersey, finds out that the team on deck for the following game is missing a player, throws on a blue jersey and helps them win 71 to 63. Afterward, the ref with the small shorts who Brown has beefed with through both games makes his way over to him, resting in the bleachers. He leans in to offer some words of wisdom. “You’ve got a good game,” the ref acknowledges, “but my advice is to be fundamental. It will take you a long way.”
Everyone, it seems, is coaching Chris Brown from the sidelines. But he’s used to playing his own game. And winning. Over lunch at the London Hotel in New York City a few days later, Brown recalls being 14 years old and getting a call from Usher, who was encouraging Brown to sign with Island Def Jam.
“Big Usher. He was like the Michael Jackson of our generation,” Brown says. “I said what’s up to him, but I ain’t sign with Def Jam.” Brown went with Jive Records instead, and his 2005 platinum-selling self-titled debut spawned a string of hits, including “Run It!” “Yo (Excuse Me Miss),” and “Gimme That,” which, together with his incredible dancing, sweet face and crossover appeal, allowed Brown himself to snatch Big Usher’s spot as this generation’s Michael Jackson. It also sent his peers-all older than Brown-scrambling to keep up with the young star’s effortless moves and energy.
“I don’t consider myself the typical R&B guy because I’m not an R&B cat,” declares Brown, who prefers to describe himself as an “R&B jock.” “I’m from the ‘hood. I’m not a punk! A lot of cats get consumed with, ‘Oooh, I’m this; I’m that.’ They’re divos. I’m not a divo at all. I’m just a dude.” And therefore, not a threat.
“I don’t do R&B beef. That’s corny,” Brown says when asked about rivalries and competition. “I don’t really have many friends in the industry. Trey Songz I consider my homey. I can still see the country in him. I can still see the same dude. And Rihanna’s real cool. Rihanna’s a good girl. Like friend, not a girlfriend.” Brown feels the need to clarify because rumors were floating around that the two were a couple. They also made a remix of her hit “Umbrella” together. He says he doesn’t think it’s a good look for his image to be in a relationship right now, that he could lose fans.
“Everybody wants to be the best, from me to Ne-Yo to Usher, Omarion, Justin Timberlake, Trey Songz, Mario, everybody.”
In the hotel lobby a middle-aged white woman extends her fist to give Brown some dap as he passes by. In the restaurant two elderly Ladies Who Lunch send over a tray of sweets because “he looks like he’s working so hard.” Brown is used to the attention from grown women (he claims 34-year-old Gabrielle Union has shown interest in him) and, of course, from all the young girls who squeal at his concerts and chase after his bus. “I appreciate it because that means they really like me, but in a spooky way,” he says with a half-scared, half-animated smile. “I take most of it with a grain of salt because they’re a fan of who they see on TV.”
The new album is called Exclusive, and it’s packed with Brown’s signature upbeat hits and top-tier production by Bryan Michael Cox, will.i.am, Scott Storch, Swizz Beatz, Dre & Vidal, the Underdogs and Johnta Austin. Brown co-wrote seven of the album’s 10 tracks, and he knows this is no time to disappoint your audience. Even as he spends the day doing interviews, playing ball, checking out (and commenting on) females everywhere he goes and, even, cursing and acting a fool much more than his management might like, Brown still manages to keep his eyes on the right prize. Consider his goal to someday sell at least 12 million records. “Michael Jackson sold twenty-five million albums, so I wanna get to at least twelve,” he says matter-of-factly. “If I could just sell twelve, I’m doing my part because that means double that is downloading it….I don’t wanna settle. I wanna be the best.”
The King of Pop is for Brown, like for many young stars who grew up in awe of the videos and hits, a real touchstone. When Brown was four years old, his father, then a cop, would watch Michael Jackson videos and copy MJ’s moonwalk. Brown would copy his father. Then this summer, four years after Usher called him (and two days after his 18th birthday), Brown received a call from the King of Pop himself. Brown was at the movies watching Spider-Man 3 when his security guard handed him the phone.
“Michael told me his favorite song was ‘Shortie Like Mine,’” Brown says, trying to smother his laugh. “He wants to do a song with me and will.i.am. Michael said to me, ‘Being able to dance and sing, that’s rare. Nobody can do it-only you, me and a couple others. Keep working and dream big.’ He told me, ‘Dream big.’”
Great advice from one star to another, even better advice from a legend who experienced a difficult childhood just, as it seems, our new star did. Because Chris Brown’s past, though always filled with dreams, also featured its share of nightmares.
Brown was always the little kid in the big kids’ room at his mother Joyce’s day-care center in Tappahannock, Virginia (population: 2,000). In the back of the school bus, the older girls used to make him sing Soul For Real’s “Candy Rain” for them every day. At the local fitness center, he played basketball with guys twice his age. “There were guys twenty-four, twenty-five, and I’m like, ‘Oh, these dudes letting me play with them!’” He was the only sixth grader on the eighth grade team, freshman on the high school varsity team. It’s clear Brown always had a light shining on him, but he’s endured more dark days than his happy-go-lucky demeanor lets on.
Like the day an 11-year-old Brown made a promise to his mother. He vowed that he would go to jail by age 15 for killing his abusive stepfather. “I just want you to know that I love you,” he told her. “But I’m gonna take a baseball bat one day while you at work, and I’m gonna kill him.” Brown’s parents had separated when he was seven. When his mother remarried, she moved her son and his new stepfather to a trailer park. Then his stepfather shot himself in the head. The shot went straight through the eyes. He survived the suicide attempt but was permanently blinded.
“When you’re blind, your senses are heightened, like your smell, hearing, your sense of touch,” Brown explains. “You can move and maneuver around your sight. But he used to hit my mom….He made me terrified all the time, terrified like I had to pee on myself. I remember one night he made her nose bleed. I was crying and thinking, ‘I’m just gonna go crazy on him one day…’ I hate him to this day.”
Brown found relief in the streets by spending time with his boys, avoiding home. “Music, basketball and drawing was my outlet to keep me away from all that.” At 13 Brown started taking music more seriously and moved back and forth from Virginia to New York City. He traveled to Harlem to link with T.J. Allen, aka T-Breezy, an aspiring rapper whose father was well-known music producer Timmy Allen. (That was also the year Brown’s mom finally left Darnell. Brown believes she found the strength in part because she suspected her son was about to kill him two years early.) With Brown calling himself C Swizzle, Allen began shopping the pair’s demos and quickly scored an audition at Island Def Jam with CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid. Reid offered Brown and his buddy a deal on the spot.
“Me and all the guys was in the bathroom, jumping around, just being big kids,” Brown says. “They was grown men! But me and T.J. were just wildin’!
“I remember I called my mom about to cry, but I was like, ‘No, I’m a boy. I’m not supposed to cry.’”
But the deal quickly went sour. According to Brown, during the negotiations, Allen and his team got greedy. “They took care of me this whole time, and then they started being snakes,” he says. Tina Davis, then a senior vice president at the label, saw Brown’s talent and told him not to sign the deal. “Tina was like, ‘I’m not signing that agreement with you. They not being right.’ And this was before she became my manager. She coulda just been like, ‘Oh, alright, I’m gonna make my money anyway.’” Davis was fired from Def Jam not long after. Brown called her the same day and asked her to be his manager. He hadn’t signed the Def Jam deal. She moved him in with her in New Jersey and got him a deal with Jive Records, now home to R&B’s ruling class: R. Kelly, Justin Timberlake, T-Pain, Joe and Huey.
“Me and T.J. used to stay at Tina’s house all the time. We thought she was super rich!” Brown says. “She lived in a regular neighborhood, and we was from the ghetto. We was wearing a whole bunch of dirty clothes. She would buy us fresh things every week, new sneakers.” And he started doing his schoolwork through an Internet home-school program partially because it seemed like his friends in Virginia were hating on him anyway. Brown had been back to Virginia for his ninth and 10th grade basketball seasons but had been getting into fights, so after that, it was a wrap. He was too busy learning how to become a pop star.
“I did weeks of media training because I was so country,” he says. “My mentality was still Harlem and Tappahannock. I was stuck in the ‘hood mind-set.”
Brown and Davis would also watch movies about exploitation in the music industry-such as the Sam Cooke story about how he had his publishing stolen-stories that, Davis says, helped Brown understand what he needed to do to get to a certain place. “He was learning how to talk right, how to sit right,” Davis remembers. She would fall asleep during the movies, and when she woke up, he would still be there watching, taking it all in, transfixed. “He was like a sponge.”
It’s a hot, sunny afternoon in mid-June. Down the block from Brown’s cover shoot at Manhattan’s Drive In Studios, girls in tight jeans are gathered after class outside Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities with Chris Breezy look-alikes in fitted caps and Jordans. Brown’s own graduation was a few weeks earlier, and despite the money and fame, he’s still disappointed that he wasn’t able to walk with his class, missing out on all the ball games, parties, the prom.
When Brown talks of Exclusive, he uses high school as the metaphor. “With a second album, there’s a lot of pressure to maintain status,” he says. “It’s like if you’re popular in high school, you gotta keep it up-keep the fresh gear on, keep saying the right things. The whole music industry is like high school. My prom was the Grammys.”
But what high school type is he? Most likely to succeed? Class clown? Most athletic? Whichever he is, not too many high school students have recently built a six-bedroom home in Virginia, own a white Ford Expedition, a blue Lamborghini and a black Range Rover, or just bought their mom an orange Corvette and a matching house down the street.
If he had gone to his prom, Brown would have liked Ciara to be his date.
“When Ciara came out, I loooved her,” he says. “This was before her and Bow Wow and before anybody knew me at all. I met her at a show and was just really intrigued. I remember talking to her like, ‘Yo, I’m attracted to you and all that.’ But I was too young for her. I didn’t get the time of day!” Brown says he tried to holler at Ciara, now 21, both before he learned she was in a relationship with Bow Wow and again after they broke up. So there’s no guessing who’s the inspiration behind Brown and Bow Wow’s 2006 hit duet, “Shortie Like Mine.” Brown says that once he and Bow Wow became cool, he was straight up with him. “I told him, ‘Man, I got a crush on Ciara.’ He was like, ‘Who doesn’t?’ But I’m cool now. I don’t stunt her that much because if I know somebody’s not attracted like that, I’m not gonna push. At the end of the day, you’re not blessed with everything.”
Given his abnormally successful world, Chris Brown needs some normalcy. Take a recent “tattoo” moment between client and manager. To Davis’s dismay, Brown got a tattoo of a skull with a halo for his 18th birthday. “I told him, that’s five hundred thousand units, baby,” says Davis. “That’s a parent who don’t wanna buy that album. I had told him not to make it visible, and he put it on his hand!” But Davis also believes you have to let a kid be a kid. “If you don’t give them normalcy and fight for their normalcy, they’ll go crazy in this industry,” she says. “So when he asks to go play basketball with his friends in Harlem, because that’s what he loves, how could I say no? They treat him just like he’s Chris Brown back then. And that’s so important.”
“I’m eighteen years old. This is the year you’re supposed to move out, go to college or something,” Chris says. Instead, Chris Brown has finished a second album, is gearing up for a worldwide tour in October and planning outfits for a trip to Oprah’s Girls Academy in Africa. But he’s not a superstar yet.
“I hear it,” he says, “but I don’t feel it.”
- LAURA CHECKOWAY