On a Monday morning around this time in 2016, Chris Brown woke up and sparked a blunt. He had fallen asleep on a bright red sectional sofa in the living room of his $4.35 million mansion in Tarzana, an affluent area of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. It’s where he would pass out most evenings. Lately, says a former employee who was accustomed to scenes like this, Brown had trouble sleeping in his master bedroom upstairs and would instead watch sci-fi movies all through the night. Empty Styrofoam cups littered the table, a sign that Brown — who hadn’t been taking his medication for the bipolar II condition he had been diagnosed with in 2014 — had likely also been sipping lean (a mixture of promethazine/codeine syrup and a soft drink), his comedown of choice after a coke or Molly binge. Brown scrolled through Instagram, hunting for clues about the status of his ex, the 28-year-old model Karrueche Tran. Whom was she with last night, and where? Who was commenting on her most recent photos?
A delivery man arrived and began ringing Brown’s doorbell. “Do your f—ing job!” barked Brown at one of his security guards, a hulking man who had been living for the past three-and-a-half years in the home. But the guard, who was off duty, was asleep, and his partner was outside. Like many other nights, the guard had stayed up late to check Brown’s pulse. The bell rang again — this time, it was a construction worker who had been employed at the house all week. Brown paced back and forth. Finally, he lost his temper. “I’m going to show you what it’s like not to work with Chris Brown for two weeks!” he shouted at the guards, kicking them both out of his house.
At this time, Brown was preparing for the European leg of his One Hell of a Nite Tour, but, according to various members of his team at the time, he would stay up for as long as three days in a row, snorting cocaine and dabbling in Xanax, marijuana, Molly and lean. By the time he finally left for Europe in May, according to a lawsuit filed in June, he had physically attacked his longtime manager, Michael “Mike G” Guirguis. (In the suit, Guirguis also claimed that in the four years they worked together Brown suffered from “addiction, anger control and violence issues.”) In August, Brown was arrested after he returned from the tour, following a standoff with police at his home for allegedly pointing a gun at the actress Baylee Curran. He also, TMZ reported, threw a duffel bag full of drugs and weapons out of his window. (Brown’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, later disputed that claim, and to date, no charges have been filed. Both Brown and Geragos declined to comment for this story.)
Brown’s problems are no secret. Since his brutal attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, which sent her to the hospital bloody and bruised on Grammy night, it seems like there’s nothing he can do to shock the world — or alienate his Team Breezy fan base, which can be as belligerent and defensive as the singer himself. (Brown has had to ask his fans, on occasion, to stop threatening to kill his critics.) Since that assault — for which he was sentenced to six months of community labor, a year of counseling and five years of probation — Brown, 27, has been arrested two more times and made two trips to rehab, getting kicked out both times.
Through the years, Brown has descended from the height of stardom to the lowest circle of fame, becoming better known as a sleazy tabloid obsession than a VIP. He has made news the last few months for a variety of unsavory reasons: writing “Somebody tell Aladdin hop off my dick” when Aziz Ansari compared him to Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live; the discovery of his $500,000 Lamborghini Aventador, abandoned on Coldwater Canyon in Beverly Hills, apparently demolished in a high-speed crash (and reportedly driven by one of several friends to whom he had given keys); the saga of his now-canceled boxing match with Soulja Boy, who said he had earned Brown’s ire by liking a picture on Tran’s Instagram; and the restraining order Tran filed for on Feb. 17, claiming that Brown physically abused and threatened to kill her.
Still, while it seems as if Chris Brown the man has yet to find his bottom, Chris Brown the R&B star remains a commercial force and near-constant presence on radio, through songs of his own and features on recent tracks by of-the-moment artists like Gucci Mane and Jeremih. In 2016 alone, he managed seven debuts on the Billboard Hot 100, with “Back to Sleep” peaking at No. 20. And despite an Australian leg that Brown was forced to cancel (after the government warned that it would deny his visa due to his criminal conviction in the Rihanna case), the One Hell of a Nite Tour played 41 shows at arenas across the United States and Europe. Brown has already scored one Hot 100 hit this year — “Party,” featuring Usher and Gucci Mane, which reached No. 40.
“Chris is an incredible singer and stylist who knows exactly who he is as an artist,” says Brandy, who featured Brown on her 2012 single “Put It Down.” “As a whole, he’s courageous. I loved working with him and would like to work with him again.”
After he released his first album at age 16, 2005’s Chris Brown (which has sold 2.3 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Music), the artist didn’t merely become a reliable hitmaker — he was hailed as the next Michael Jackson. His first-ever performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, in 2007, was an instant classic: He leapt between platforms, flawlessly executed pratfalls and even slipped an ultra-precise snippet of Jackson’s “Billie Jean” choreography into a marathon six minutes onstage. (Rihanna showed up to sing “Umbrella” partway through.) “He’s the most all-around talented person in R&B,” says Ebro Darden, assistant program director/morning host at WQHT (Hot 97) New York. “Trey Songz is talented, but he can’t dance like Chris Brown. Usher is probably the only person who could rival him, but he doesn’t have the songwriting abilities Chris Brown does.”
“He’s a natural. He is almost God’s perfect person,” says Flii Stylz, Brown’s longtime choreographer, who previously worked with Usher. “No matter how he f—s up and no matter what he does, another replacement for him is not on the way in the next decade.”It may be true that there’s no replacement for Brown. (And in fact, the new generation of rapper-singers like Drake and Bryson Tiller may have rendered the classic R&B singer-dancer nearly obsolete.) But that hasn’t turned Brown — who, since at least 2014, has sometimes publicly claimed affiliation with the Bloods gang — from his self-destructive path. And his career now exists in a kind of purgatory. His label, RCA Records, remains supportive of Brown, saying in a statement to Billboard, “We’re proud to be in business with Chris, a uniquely gifted artist who is always striving to be better. Through his ups and downs, we will continue to stand behind him.” But since Guirguis’ departure in May 2016 and publicist Nicole Perna quitting that spring, Brown has worked without a personal rep or manager. RCA has yet to give a release date for his next album, Heartbreak on a Full Moon, which was announced in May 2016. (The label says it is “targeting this summer” and that Brown is still recording.) And there’s no indication of when and where his Welcome to My Life documentary may air, even though a trailer was posted online in April 2016.
On Feb. 22, Brown announced an ambitious spring tour, Party, with 33 dates planned at arenas across the United States and Fabolous and 50 Cent among the special guests. But if his last run of dates — during which, according to someone who was then working closely with him, he threatened his tour manager in a rage, leading her to quit — is any indication, life on the road offers no escape from the anger and addiction that haunt him. “He will cuss you out and say, ‘Hey, man, I’m functioning. I’m going to get the work out.’ And he does,” says a current member of Brown’s team. “But [he’s not] the first functional star who thinks they can handle those powerful drugs. I got to say with all my heart, he’s dancing with death.”
Not long ago, it looked as if Brown might turn things around. In early June 2014, he had just been released early from a Los Angeles County jail. (The previous October, Brown had violated his probation by punching a man in Washington, D.C., who was allegedly trying to take a picture with him.)
Three days after Brown’s release, Tran, his girlfriend at the time, led him, blindfolded, into a backyard barbecue she had organized with Guirguis at a Beverly Hills mansion. (Tran, a petite part-Vietnamese, part-Jamaican Wilhelmina model, started dating Brown in 2011, although after trading digs with Rihanna on social media, she and Brown broke up and Brown and Rihanna briefly reunited. She and Brown reconciled in 2013.) Brown’s mother, Joyce Hawkins; T-Pain; Wiz Khalifa; Tyga; Amber Rose; Akon; and various executives from his label, RCA — including president of urban music Mark Pitts, who has worked with Brown since signing him at Jive Records — greeted Brown. According to two guests who were there, the singer clapped his hands, took a bow and kissed Tran on the lips. “I love you so much,” he said.
Earlier that year, a report by Brown’s probation officer surfaced, revealing he had been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, a condition defined by depressive and hypomanic episodes (the latter less extreme than typical “mania”) and often triggered by periods of extreme stress and drug and alcohol abuse. The report also cited “untreated PTSD” and “inappropriate self-medicating.” But at the party, Brown seemed clean, happy and focused. “When he got out of jail, that is the best I’ve seen him,” says Stylz (although, he adds, referring to Brown’s weight gain, “he looked like Sinbad”). Around that time, says Stylz, Brown “would sit down and meditate. I liked that Chris, who meditated when he was frustrated.”
Indeed, Brown was in a reflective frame of mind when he gave Billboard his first post-jail interview that August. (His album X would debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 a month later.) He allowed that, before going to jail, “maybe I was out of control. Or I needed something to humble me to the point where I get it.” In November, he told Darden in a Hot 97 interview that prior to jail, he used “the syrup, the Xanax,” and added that while marijuana offset his hyperactive tendencies, “once I started doing the lean, the other stuff … I’d be sitting in the [recording] booth sleeping.” In the trailer for the unreleased documentary, he admits that, following the Rihanna incident, “I felt like a f—ing monster. I was thinking about suicide and everything else. I wasn’t sleeping. I barely ate. I just was getting high.”
Still, when confronted with past mistakes, Brown had often responded with violent outbursts — like the time on Good Morning America in 2011, when host Robin Roberts asked him about his history with domestic abuse, and Brown stormed off the set and allegedly threw a chair through the window of his dressing room. Stylz remembers walking toward the room with Brown. “He was so upset,” he recalls. “Out of love, he said, ‘Flii, don’t walk with me. I want to hit shit. I want to swing at everything around me.’ I didn’t want to go in the room. He could have knocked anybody out.”
Just two weeks after his 2014 Billboard interview, Brown’s troubles returned: Suge Knight and two others were shot at Brown’s pre-MTV Video Music Awards party at 1OAK in Hollywood. This was just the latest in a series of violent incidents involving Brown and other prominent music figures, beginning with Rihanna in 2009 and including a brawl involving Drake’s and Brown’s entourages in June 2012 and a January 2013 incident in which, police said, he punched Frank Ocean. (Ocean did not press charges, but Ocean’s cousin — who claimed that one of Brown’s guards injured him in the fight — sued. Brown reportedly settled a year later for less than $20,000.) Though Brown didn’t appear to be directly involved in the 1OAK incident, Knight later sued both him and the club for not providing adequate security, calling Brown “a known gang associate with a history of violence” (the case is still unresolved).
By March of 2015, Brown had completed a 22-date tour with Trey Songz and rapper Tyga (although he was barred from entering Canada, the second of four places that would deny his visa based on past arrests in the United States). On March 4, Tran broke up with him when she learned that Brown had fathered a daughter, Royalty (then 9 months old) with the former model Nia Guzman. “One can only take so much,” Tran tweeted at the time. “No baby drama for me.”
It briefly seemed like meeting his daughter would overshadow losing Tran. “He didn’t see it coming,” says Stylz, “but Royalty changed his life. He’s a good dad. He really loves her, and he’s not faking that.” In April, Brown posted an Instagram picture of him cuddling her, captioned “God has blessed me with my twin,” and he named his next album, released that December, after her.
Perhaps Brown saw an opportunity to make good in a way he had previously said his own father figure — the man he has called his stepdad — hadn’t. Early in his career, Brown spoke openly about witnessing his mother’s physical abuse at the hands of Donnelle Hawkins. Hawkins later denied his stepson’s allegations, saying, “It is a way of not accepting responsibility for his own actions.” But Brown remembered that Hawkins “made me terrified all the time,” and said, “I don’t want to go through the same thing, or put a woman through the same thing that that person put my mom through.”