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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. Having been 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 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.
Which, ultimately they did. Though likely not the one they were aiming for.
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,” showed the extent of the damage and a police report filled in the rest. Brown’s rage had been relentless: he had punched her repeatedly in the face and arm, even biting her ear all while manuevering 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, according to the police report, he even threatened to kill her.
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 NYC, 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. “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.”
“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.”
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 kindkling was a chance encounter with Brown’s former lover. Though the “Run It” singer said he had no idea she would be there, Rihanna was still upset when she approached them at the bash.
“The ceremony’s about to start, she’s just crying,” Brown recalled. 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.”
Then as he was driving them home in the flashy rental, she discovered a lengthy text message from his ex-paramour that she felt showed he 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.'”
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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.”
Per the police report, he threatened to beat her when they got home, causing Rihanna 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.”
Eventually, he pulled over, causing Rihanna to grab the keys and pretend to throw them out the window. As Brown went scrambling to locate them, “She yells out her door, ‘Help, he’s trying to kill me.'”
Her screams caught the attention of a neighbor who dialed 911, 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.”
But none of that was enough to keep the madly in love duo apart. Sources 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.
“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.
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.'”
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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.”
Less than two months later, Rihanna sat down with Sawyer, detailing what she wish 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.”
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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. He’s also collected 17 BET and BET Hip-Hop Awards and performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel Live and Saturday Night Live.
That level of forgiveness would be impressive even if his altercation with Rihanna was his only transgression. After all, he’s apologized for the situation, offered up full remorse.
And the worst mistake of his life could have easily 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 violations.
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, he tried to throw something through the window of his dressing room before stomping out shirtless.
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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.
And just last month he was detained by police in Paris over accusations of aggravated rape and drug offenses. He was released hours later 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.'”
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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.”
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.
Though Brown has remained just on her periphery, at times riling up her fanbase by commenting on her Instas or, as he boldly suggested a year ago, proposing they go on tour together, he’s firmly in the rearview of her life.
Having since moved on with billionaire businessman Hassan Jameel, she credits her uncomfortable past with helping her truly understand her worth. “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, years before she would connect with Jameel. “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.”