For a few years there, Chris Brown seemed primed to be the pop star of his generation.
His self-titled debut moved more than 3 million copies after its 2005 release, he scored acting roles in Stomp the Yard, This Christmas and on The O.C. and even released a hit single, "No Air" with American Idol darling Jordin Sparks.
And his rise up the ranks was being mirrored by another young musician.
Discovered in her native Barbados when two American record producers were vacationing there in 2004, Rihanna had a succession of quick hits with her 2005 dancehall-inspired tune "Pon de Replay," and "SOS" off her 2006 follow-up disc A Girl Like Me. By the time she was accepting Video of the Year at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards for the impossibly catchy "Umbrella," rumors that something was happening with Brown, her duet partner at the music network's annual shindig, had reached a deafening pitch.
The pair continued to spend the next year labeling their relationship as platonic—"We are best friends, honestly, like brother and sister," she told MTV—until their outings to London clubs and vacation to Barbados made it impossible to continue to deny the obvious. "Our relationship is growing," Brown admitted during a 2008 interview with the Russ Parr Morning Show. "We started off as friends and we're getting a little bit closer now."
The crowned prince and princess of R&B, 19-year-old Brown and his 20-year-old girlfriend were one of the most adorable young couples in all of music. And with each slated to perform at the 2009 Grammys Feb. 8 (triple nominee Rihanna was primed to sing with Justin Timberlake while Brown, up for two trophies, was set to belt out his hit "Forever") they were ready to make a big statement.
Instead, everything unraveled.
Twelve years ago today, the music world and pop culture enthusiasts everywhere awoke to the news that neither Chris Brown nor Rihanna would be donning their red carpet finery that evening. The promising young super star (already the recipient of three American Music Awards, three Billboard Music Awards and a People's Choice Award for Favorite Male Artist) had been arrested following an early morning altercation in their rented Lamborghini and his girlfriend was equally incapacitated, her face left bloodied, bruised and swollen by his vicious attack.
Photos, later leaked by a person Rihanna would describe to Vanity Fair as "a very nasty woman who thought a check was more important than morals," painted a heartbreaking picture of what had taken place. The police report recounted it all in careful detail. Brown's rage had been relentless. In a sworn statement, an L.A. detective said that Brown had punched Rihanna repeatedly in the face and arm, even biting her ear all while maneuvering their rental down the street. With the car stopped, he put her in a headlock causing her to slowly lose consciousness as she struggled to break free. At one point, the detective alleged, he even threatened to kill her.
With the truth laid bare, "I went from being on top of the world, No. 1 songs, being kind of like America's sweetheart to being Public Enemy No. 1," Brown recalled years later in his 2017 documentary Chris Brown: Welcome to My Life. "I felt like a f--king monster."
His fall felt as sudden as it was sharp, but their relationship had actually been on the decline for some time. Years after the teens first connected at a 2004 party in New York City, their bond was tarnished when Rihanna learned Brown had slept with someone else prior to their getting together, a situation he had lied about previously.
"My trust totally was lost with her," Brown explained in the film, claiming that they had both gotten physical with each other. "She hated me after that. I tried everything, she didn't care. She just didn't trust me after that. From there, it just went downhill because there were too many verbal fights, physical fights as well. Mutual sides."
Probation officer reports released after the pre-Grammy incident detailed this wasn't the duo's first fight. A verbal dispute during a late 2008 trip to Europe, saw Rihanna slapping Brown, with him responding by shoving her into the wall, per the report. And after an argument in Barbados in January 2009, the report states, Brown smashed the windows of their rented Range Rover. "We would fight each other. She would hit me, I would hit her and it never was OK," he claimed in the doc. They would work it out, agreeing to keep their hands to themselves, but that would only last until the next vicious argument.
"There was always a point where we'd talk about it like, 'What the f--k are we doing?'" he said. "Like, 'I don't like you slapping me.' If I go on stage I got a scratch on my face and I gotta explain it like, 'Oh, no I fell.' If you got a scar or a bruise you gotta put makeup on. I'm not ever trying to put my hands on any female."
One of the issues, as Rihanna would later put it in a November 2009 interview with Diane Sawyer was that their connection went beyond basic infatuation and affection. "He was definitely my first big love. We were best friends," she explained. "We fell in love with each other. To fall in love with your best friend, it can be scary. We just fell really fast. The more in love we became, the more dangerous we became for each other, equally as dangerous, because it was a bit of an obsession almost."
And with just the right spark, that burning passion could easily become explosive.
On the night of music exec Clive Davis' legendary pre-Grammy bash, that kindling was a chance encounter with Brown's former lover, he shared in his 2017 doc. Though the "Run It" singer said he had no idea she would be there, Rihanna was still upset when the woman in question approached them at the bash.
"The ceremony's about to start, she's just crying," Brown recalled of Rihanna. But he worked his magic. "She got over it. She started drinking a little bit, we both was drinking a little bit. We were both drinking a little bit, laughing, joking. And then we left."
Up until that point, everything was fine, Rihanna agreed, later telling Sawyer, "We had a blast that night."
Then as he was driving them home in the flashy rental, Rihanna discovered a lengthy text message from his ex-paramour that she felt showed Brown knew she would be there.
"I caught him in a lie and he wouldn't tell the truth," she told Sawyer. "I wouldn't drop it. I kept saying—I couldn't take that he kept lying to me. And he couldn't take that I wouldn't drop it. Because obviously his back was up against the wall. It's, the truth is right here in the text message. So it escalated into him being violent towards me and it was ugly."
As Brown remembers it, things turned vicious early. "She starts going off, she throws the phone," he said in Welcome to My Life. "'I hate you.' Starts hitting me…She hits me a couple of more times and it doesn't go from translation to 'let's sit down, I'm telling you the truth.' It goes to, 'Now, I'm going to be mean, be evil.'"
Painting her as the instigator, he said, "I remember she tried to kick me, but then I really hit her, with a closed fist, I punched her. I busted her lip. When I saw it, I was in shock. I was like, 'F--k, why the hell did I hit her?'"
But that moment of clarity wasn't enough for him to stop. "From there she just spit in my face," Brown continued. "Spit blood in my face and it enraged me even more."
According to the detective's statement, Brown threatened to beat Rihanna when they got home, causing her to place frantic phone calls and texts to her assistants. The outreach only angered Brown more and he continued his barrage of punches as the vehicle swerved about. "All I kept thinking the whole time, when is it going to stop? When is it going to stop?" Rihanna would relay to Sawyer. "He had no soul in his eyes. Just blank. He was clearly blacked out. There was no person when I looked at him. I was battered. I was bleeding. I was swollen in my face."
Unable to drive herself, and years away from the advent of Uber, "There was no way of me getting home," she continued to Sawyer. "Except for my next option was to get out of the car and walk, start walking in a gown and a bloody face. So I really didn't know what was my plan. I didn't have a plan. That whole night wasn't part of my plan."
Eventually, he pulled over, causing Rihanna to grab the keys, Brown shared in his 2017 documentary. "She takes the keys out of the car and fakes it like she throws them out of the window," he said. "I get out of the car and I'm looking for the keys and somebody yelled and she yells out her door, ‘Help, he's trying to kill me.'"
Her screams caught the attention of a neighbor who dialed 911, the detective said in his statement, mercifully bringing the horrific episode to a halt.
But, of course, for the young couple this was just the start of their ugly history. "I look back at that picture and I'm like that's not me, bro, that's not me. I hate it to this day," Brown shared in his doc. "That's going to haunt me forever."
The initial aftermath was just as messy as the encounter itself. Using an officer's cell, a frantic Rihanna placed phone calls to her manager, personal assistant and two other people, a law enforcement source told E! News at the time, but they all went unanswered as no one recognized the number. Within 24 hours, she was meeting with an L.A. County domestic-abuse counselor and by early March, Brown (who released a statement insisting he was "seeking the counseling of my pastor, my mother and other loved ones and I am committed, with God's help, to emerging a better person") had been charged with two felony counts of assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury and making a criminal threat.
But none of that was enough to keep the madly in love duo apart. A source told E! News Brown reached out on Rihanna's 21st birthday Feb. 20 and a week later, they had met up for a rendezvous at Sean Combs' nearly 13,000-square-foot Star Island mansion in Miami Beach that they ostensibly had hoped to keep private.
Rihanna knew how it looked, what other people thought. Still, going from fully in love to 100 percent over isn't an easy switch no matter the circumstances, harder still when the whole world is weighing in.
"It was a weird, confusing space to be in, because as angry as I was, as angry and hurt and betrayed, I just felt like he made that mistake because he needed help," Rihanna told Oprah Winfrey on a 2012 edition of OWN's Next Chapter. "And like who's gonna help him? Nobody's gonna say he needs help."
Because despite his inexcusable actions, Brown was still her best friend, someone she cared deeply about and she knew that few people were in his corner. "Everybody's gonna say he's a monster without looking at the source. And I was more concerned about him," she told Winfrey. "It was hard for me to even pay attention to my mind and figuring things out because now it became a circus and I felt protective."
Their reunion would prove to be short-lived, however.
"I resented him so much, and I always put the tough face on...the 'I can do anything' face, tried to play it off," she later explained to Sawyer. "But he knew...He kept asking me, 'You hate me, don't you? You hate me,' and I would lie and say, 'No.'"
The truth, though, was as painful as the experience itself. "Everything about him annoyed me, him being around me, him talking to me. Everything was annoying for me," she shared.
That included what she felt was the stilted apology he'd delivered on YouTube. "I know that he felt really bad," she added. "I just didn't know if he understood the extent of what he did. The thing that men don't realize, when they hit a woman—the face, the broken arm, the black eye, it's going to heal. That's not the problem. It's the scar inside. You flash back, you remember it all the time. It comes back to you whether you like it or not, and it's painful."
Finally, she surmised, "I just said, 'We can't do this. I cannot continue to do this.'"
By June, with her lawyer sharing that Rihanna would testify against her former love, Brown had accepted a plea deal, that consisted of five years of probation, community labor in lieu of jail time and domestic violence counseling. Their relationship was firmly severed and all that was left were the dueling tell-alls.
A nervous Brown went on CNN's Larry King Live to offer some semblance of an explanation. "I was super nervous," he later told MTV. "I did a lot of media training and a lot of stuff like that, and it kind of wasn't genuine to me. Everything I was saying was from my heart, but it was kind of controlled. 'Well, don't say it like this, because it will look like that...' I'm going to get public scrutiny or criticism regardless of what I say. So I just didn't know what was going to be said. I just wanted to let people know how I felt at the end of the day."
Though he made clear he realized just how indefensible his actions were, he noted their youth and relative relationship inexperience were a factor. Having both grown up witnessing abuse at home, "Nobody taught us how to love one another. No one taught us a book on how to control our emotions, our anger," he told Larry King. "I'm not trying to fall on the fact that I'm young. I'm just saying it's a lot of stuff that I wish I could have changed that night."
Less than two months later, Rihanna sat down with Sawyer, detailing what she wished could have been different, sharing the shame she felt about putting up with such abuse after watching her mom suffer the same fate at the hands of her father. And while she knew she couldn't, shouldn't go back, she stopped short of saying she felt any animosity toward her ex.
"No, I don't hate him at all," she insisted. "I actually love and care about him and I think, I'm concerned about him doing well. I want him to do well, have a great career, have a great life."
Which, against all odds, he did, quicker than anyone could have imagined.
Since that initial arrest, Brown has released six albums, collaborated with the likes of Tyga, Zendaya and DJ Khaled, toured with 50 Cent, earned a role in Think Like a Man and a guest spot in ABC's Black-ish and wrangled no less than Jennifer Lopez, Rita Ora, Usher and Jamie Foxx to speak lovingly of him on his documentary.
His first release post-incident, Graffiti, came out just 10 months later and netted him two Grammy nods. His next, 2011's F.A.M.E. debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 and earned him his only Grammy to date.
That level of forgiveness would be impressive even if his altercation with Rihanna was his only transgression. After all, he's pointed out time and again, he apologized for the situation, offered up full remorse.
Or, as he put it in a 2014 interview on Hot 97's Ebro In The Morning radio show, "I feel like through the years, I've said [I f--ked up] enough now to where it's like, bro if you're still on that then I feel sorry for y'all, because it's over with. I don't have animosity about it. Obviously I have remorse about it and it's something that's really serious, but as far as the situation—like me and her, we made amends, we good."
And the worst mistake of his life could have faded into the background, considering even Rihanna forgave him enough to give their romance another go in 2013, if he didn't keep making headlines.
Cataloging Brown's every legal issue and angry outburst is quite the task. Before completing the probation for his 2009 assault in March 2015, he logged some eight months in jail between 2013 and 2014 for probation violations, including a 2013 altercation in Washington, D.C.
And there was plenty of other questionable behavior in between. First, there was the infamous 2011 Good Morning America interview with Robin Roberts that left him so aggrieved, per a source at ABC, he tried to throw something through the window of his dressing room before stomping out shirtless.
Then the 2012 brawl with Drake's entourage at an NYC nightclub that left NBA standout Tony Parker with a shard of glass in his eye, as the athlete detailed in an interview posted on his website. There was also a 2013 altercation in Washington, D.C. when he didn't want to take a picture with two men, that saw him pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault, a 2016 hours-long standoff with police that saw him arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon but never charged.
In 2017, Brown, who's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD, according to public court records, was hit with a permanent restraining order from ex-girlfriend Karrueche Tran and accused of punching a nightclub photographer. (The charges were eventually dropped.)
And in early 2019, he was detained by police in Paris over accusations of aggravated rape and drug offenses. He was released hours later without charges and his attorney filed a lawsuit against his accuser for making false accusations, with Brown taking to Instagram to clear his name on a photo that stated, "THIS B--CH LYIN.'"
Not the best of looks. But over the years Brown has proven to have something of a teflon reputation, thanks to the unwavering support of his Team Breezy fan base and more than a few of his contemporaries. Justin Bieber, for example, was among those to comment on Brown's social media after he was detained in Paris, writing, "No one can touch you ur the GOAT."
As for Rihanna, count her as indifferent.
Their love burned strong enough for her to give a romantic relationship another go in 2013, telling Rolling Stone, "I wasn't going to let anybody's opinion get in the way of that. Even if it's a mistake, it's my mistake. After being tormented for so many years, being angry and dark, I'd rather just live my truth and take the backlash. I can handle it." As for any worries Brown would lay a hand on her again, "That's just not an option. I can't say that nothing else will ever go wrong. But I'm pretty solid in the knowing that he's disgusted by that. And I wouldn't have gone this far if I ever thought that was a possibility."
Ultimately, though, simply knowing you can trust a companion not to harm you physically is not enough to sustain a successful partnership.
Admitting to Vanity Fair in 2015 she was "that girl" who felt she could change a man, she shared, "You realize after a while that in that situation you're the enemy. You want the best for them, but if you remind them of their failures, or if you remind them of bad moments in their life, or even if you say I'm willing to put up with something, they think less of you—because they know you don't deserve what they're going to give. And if you put up with it, maybe you are agreeing that you [deserve] this, and that's when I finally had to say, 'Uh-oh, I was stupid thinking I was built for this.' Sometimes you just have to walk away."
In the years since, the nine-time Grammy winner, who has branched out into acting and business with the 2017 launch of Fenty Beauty, has had few regrets.
"I don't hate him," she insisted to Vanity Fair. "I will care about him until the day I die. We're not friends, but it's not like we're enemies. We don't have much of a relationship now."
"Men are afraid to be men. They think being a real man is actually being a p---y, that if you take a chair out for a lady, or you're nice or even affectionate to your girl in front of your boys, you're less of a man," she opined to the mag. "It's so sick. They won't be a gentleman because that makes them appear soft. That's what we're dealing with now, a hundred percent, and girls are settling for that, but I won't. I will wait forever if I have to…but that's O.K. You have to be screwed over enough times to know."
(Originally published Feb. 8, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)