In 2012, I begrudgingly sat through a film called Compliance. The story is simple, based on a real-life incident from 2005: A young woman working at a fast food restaurant (played by Dreama Walker) comes under fire from her boss (Ann Dowd) when an anonymous pervert pretending to be a cop accuses her of stealing. The man demands Dowd hold Walker’s character in the break room until he can arrive to make an arrest. He also instructs Dowd and other employees to sexually assault her, which they do. The film’s title refers to Dowd’s blind allegiance to her employer and the police, but at an early screening of the film, the droves of people who walked out implied that the title also referred to those who stayed put in the theater. By watching the film to its end, the audience becomes complicit in the atrocities committed against Walker’s character and, essentially, furthers her victimization. To my discomfort, I was one of those people.
It was hard for me not to be reminded of this experience when sorting through the reviews of Chris Brown’s latest album X. We are now more than five years removed from his vicious, unconscionable beating of Rihanna, his then-girlfriend. But each album cycle reopens the door to the spectacle of Rihanna as Public Victim, one that she has long tried to keep shuttered. It remains difficult to divorce Brown from such a grotesque act because he has never sought real atonement, or even expressed cursory remorse. In fact, he’s often gone the opposite direction: There was the oops necklace, a chair-throwing rage fit on Good Morning America, a scuffle with once-rumored Rihanna paramour Drake and, most recently, a short stints in rehab and jail for probation violation.
Despite all of this reprehensible behavior, Brown’s nonetheless been crawling toward a redemption narrative for the non-#TeamBreezy-identifying public. In October 2013, he joined Trey Songz on a remix of New Orleans gangster-crooner August Alsina’s “I Luv This Shit.” Alsina’s original is a horn-laden meditation from Atlanta producer Knucklehead featuring lyrics about obscuring hard times with intoxication. But you don’t bring in Songz or Brown for depth and so the resulting remix is mostly a filth romp. Alsina and Songz relentlessly sing about blow jobs, Songz even cooing over his bedmate dribbling his “babies.” And yet Chris Brown, who delivers the last verse, refrains from besting their misogyny-tinged bedroom boasts and opts for singing about making love and female pleasure. It played like a concerted effort on Brown’s part to “be good,” or at least not awful, and I was astonished.
“Loyal,” which was released in December 2013, was more problematic. DJ Mustard’s ratchet wizardry and Ty Dolla $ign’s Teddy Riley-informed vocal writing can make almost anything palatable, and it was a certified hit, both commercially and critically. I tried ignoring it, mostly because Brown deserves no attention, but after hearing it in every cab and club, I couldn’t deny it anymore. I felt myself venturing out onto shaky ground.
The song kept gaining momentum, but the impact of its popularity wasn’t fully apparent until Brown’s return from jail in June 2014. The following month, the 25-year-old singer appeared at ESPN’s annual sports awards the ESPYs in a sketch with Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin and the show’s host, Drake. Having him appear on the show felt dubious enough — it wasn’t until 2012 that he was welcomed back to the Grammys — but his cameo in the skit was a jaw-dropper. It plays out with Blake and Drake sabotaging each other for top billing on a buddy flick, only to have Brown appear with a maniacal look in his eyes and Griffin tapping him in to perform surgery on Drake. The implication was that not only was Brown about to do physical harm to the Young Money rapper, but that Rihanna was seemingly just a piece of property for the two to fight over. It was sickening, just another way to put her on a platform as Victim of Domestic Abuse and remind the public that not only did this happen to her, but that it is ours as a community to comment on it however we see fit.
But it’s not, and it reminded us again of just how many sour notes Brown is still playing while trying to worm his way back into our good graces. In a recent Billboard cover story, he said, “As far as my mistakes in life, that’s being a role model, because people can see my mistakes and learn from them…If kids look up to me, that’s amazing; great…But as far as saying, ‘Hey, I’m a role model, I’m the best this,’ I take the humble approach and let people make that decision for themselves.” By allowing Brown to pop up after the sketch finished and introduce himself as “America’s sweetheart” just makes light of why he is so reviled in the first place, placing the onus on the audience to move on.
There are similarly misguided pop culture references on X. A duet with Trey called “Songs from 12 Play” features lyrics constructed by R. Kelly song titles, not just from his iconic 12 Play, but elsewhere throughout his catalog. This is not only a mistake because The-Dream has already done this and done it better, but because Brown and Kells exist on similarly reprehensible planes. Despite the fact that the song is a pristine work of pop produced by Mel & Mus (Rihanna’s “Raining Men,” Nicki Minaj’s “I’m Legit”), it’s a queasy-making thing only made worse by Kelly showing up one song later to sing with Brown.
The Virginia native has had no trouble finding collaborators in the past five years, the industry eager to ignore the issue in order to keep making money with him. This album feels especially packed: Usher, Akon, Rick Ross, Jhene Aiko and Brandy all appear. The songs are fairly standard issue, but it has some shining moments. One in particular is his Kendrick Lamar collaboration “Autumn Leaves.” It’s unruffled, with wispy vocals and George Benson-esque guitar noodles wafting in the percussion. K.Dot comes in gruff, but with the kind of poetics he usually reserves for his own tracks instead of the I’m-gonna-kill-you-on-your-own-track lyrical tricks we expect from his guest verses. The song’s major problem? When Brown sings, “I’ve been bleeding in your silence/ I feel safer in your violence.” His use of savage language to describe being forsaken becomes incendiary instead of sad. You can’t help but bristle at what feels like a jab to an open wound even though the song is beautiful.
With Chris Brown, it becomes impossible to isolate standard songwriting from personal missives. Rih’s 2012 chart-topper Unapologetic is, perhaps, the only instance in which personal history can be a part of the criticism. The album features a duet with Brown called “Nobody’s Business” and was released when the two were alleged to be back together. The reaction to their return to romance was largely unsupportive, but by calling the song “Nobody’s Business,” Rih was already asserting to the public that it’s not our place to talk about what happened to her.
In the years since the assault, Rihanna never once dipped out of the public eye, with a nonstop release schedule that didn’t cease until 2013, which she concluded with an international tour. It’s that mettle that makes me think we owe it to Rihanna to stop talking about the assault. She has the right to not be reminded of her grisly past every time her ex-boyfriend, essentially, goes to work.
Her most recent appearance in the news implies that she might feel the same. Her contribution to The Blueprint 3 track “Run This Town” was slated to be the theme song for the CBS Thursday Night Football broadcast. The first night the song was set to air was before a matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. Although Ravens running back Ray Rice had already been terminated from the team after a video of him abusing his wife Janay found its way to the internet, CBS decided to shelve the opening credits that week. Once again, the public had found a way to thrust Rihanna back into the shadows of her assault. The following week, she cursed out the network for deciding to bring it back: “CBS you pulled my song last week, now you wanna slide it back in this Thursday? NO, Fuck you! Ya’ll are sad for penalizing me for this.” Upon Rihanna’s profane missive, CBS pulled the song permanently. Shouldn’t we consider that when we frame a review of Chris Brown’s work on this specific crime that we, too, are penalizing Rihanna?
The first lyric on X is, “If you’re only as good as the company you keep/ Then I’m gonna blame you for what they say about me.” Maybe we should take a hard look at that lyric, embrace it for our own redemption from Chris Brown, and walk out of the theater, not to be complicit in this narrative again. Here, I’ll go first.