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Onstage, at least, Chris Brown has nothing to apologize for

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009

Nothing shoos the 800-pound gorilla out of the room quite like the ear-piercing wail of 1,800 fans.

That resounding din welcomed Chris Brown to the Warner Theatre stage on Friday night, as the singer made his first Washington appearance since life took an ugly twist in February when he assaulted then-girlfriend, fellow R&B sensation Rihanna. Since then, the 20-year-old Brown has shown various faces to the media -- flip, contrite, smug, confused -- apologizing at every turn while still seeming not to fully grasp the severity of his misdeeds.

Onstage, Brown didn't look like a monster. He was the same popping, locking, million-dollar-smiling pop star that America fell for in 2005 when he emerged into the national spotlight. Performing his new single "I Can Transform Ya," Friday, he was captivating, moving across the stage with grace of an athlete and the precision of a machine -- a paragon of control.

But control is exactly what Brown lost during the wee hours of Feb. 8, of course, when his infamous altercation with Rihanna threatened to vaporize his musical future. Overnight, the heartthrob-next-door had sparked an outrage so hot that many declared his career over. Some radio stations pulled him from the airwaves. Endorsements evaporated. His young fans struggled to make sense of the news -- some just gave up.

Now, Brown is performing to theaters crammed with his truest and bluest, on a 17-date Fan Appreciation Tour. His new album, "Graffiti," arrives Tuesday, and a much-anticipated interview on ABC's "20/20" aired Friday, just as Brown was wrapping up at the Warner.

Two hours before the beleaguered singer took the stage in Washington -- and three hours before his face hit TV screens nationwide -- a queue of giddy, giggly teenagers lined the block outside the theater. The chatter continued in the lobby, where fans swarmed the merch table to pledge their forgiveness in T-shirts and posters.

"It wasn't right, but we don't really know what happened in that car," said Risha Jones, 19, a freshly purchased "I{heart}Chris Brown" shirt tucked under her arm. "I'll always be a fan and that will never change."

Martha Jones, 23, wasn't so supportive. "I'm having very conflicted emotions," she said. "Like, why am I here supporting this guy?"

Her friend Ronlicia Gordon-Falls, 20, chimed in quickly: "I don't like the person. But I love the performer."

Many of Brown's fans might be ready to forgive, but in the months after the assault, he seemed far from repentant. In March, he was photographed riding a jet ski off Miami, flashing smiles and flexing biceps. In May, he released a YouTube video in which he claimed defiantly, "We ain't going nowhere . . . I ain't a monster." In July, a long-awaited public apology finally arrived (also via YouTube), delivered with a suspect stiffness.

But that was then. As he peddles his new album to holiday shoppers, he is surely hoping his apologies move units. Brown's mea culpa tour started with a "Larry King Live" interview that aired Sept. 2. During the chat's awkward nadir, the bow-tied singer claimed he didn't even remember the assault.

Two weeks later, another hiccup: Brown posted a picture of himself on Twitter clad in a bright orange safety vest, performing some of the first community labor hours he was sentenced to in August. The image came with a smug caption: "CHECK OUT MY OUTFIT."

Arguably Brown's most crucial interview came Friday, with ABC's Robin Roberts. (The network originally scheduled the singer to perform on "Good Morning America," but reconsidered their decision, shuttling Brown over to "20/20.")

Oddly, the sitdown might be the most helpful chunk of publicity Brown will receive for his new album, an effort in which the singer largely aims to rehab his image by pretending none of this controversy ever happened.

The daffy cover art of "Graffiti" finds Brown clad in sci-fi regalia, aiming a can of spray paint at a pack of cartoon goblins. (Are Brown's demons mere cartoons?) The album traffics in the same candy-pop that first made the singer famous, only with a distorted, serrated edge.

The disc opens with the same song that opened Friday's set, "I Can Transform Ya," a spiky, rock-tinged affair that recycles the concept of Beyoncé's "Upgrade U" for the Hasbro set. In the song's CGI-heavy video, Brown transforms into a a fire truck while dancing ninjas come backflipping out of a "G.I. Joe" cartoon.

On Friday, the video flickered on a towering screen behind Brown as he sang "Transform Ya," but there was no visible metamorphosis onstage. Brown didn't show himself a changed man. Sporting a boyish grin, he stuck to his act. His latest act of contrition would be on television in about an hour.

Chris Brown's Fan Appreciation Tour comes to Sonar in Baltimore on Dec. 11.

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