If you’re looking for remorse in Chris Brown’s eyes, you won’t find it.
What you might’ve seen, if you stared and squinted into the flashing lights and lasers at Tampa’s Amalie Arena Saturday night, was a look of focus, of intensity, a look that flickered with electricity when he tilted up and cast his voice to the cheap seats.
“So y’all know my style,” he said. “We just want to make sure y’all have fun, right? Y’all came here to party and have fun?”
If only it was that easy. For all the screams and stage effects on display at Amalie Arena, with Brown, you can never just turn off the noise and wave away the smoke. Maybe you can for a night, like just under 10,000 dancing fans did on Saturday. But you’re burying your head in the sand if you’re not also thinking, just a little, about What Chris Brown Still Means.
Volumes, in time, will be written about the bad men of this era -- men who got banished, men who came back, men who showed remorse and reflection, men who never faced comeuppance.
Bill Cosby and R. Kelly are in jail; Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey are not. Al Franken’s out of the Senate; Roy Moore’s running to get in. Michael Jackson, David Bowie and XXXtentacion are dead, and so we struggle with what to do with them. Casey Affleck, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Kodak Black are not, and it’s not clear what we do with them, either. Up to 24 women have accused Donald Trump of sexual impropriety, and he is, at press time, still the president. This game has no rulebook.
Brown was both a precursor to this reckoning and a boogeyman within it (he’s currently facing rape allegations in France following an arrest in January). But on the whole, he’s weathered the era with Teflon ease. He’s tangoed with the law and paid at least some of his debts (he long ago fulfilled his probation in the Rihanna case). In some cases, like an alleged 2017 battery in Tampa, the charges were dropped. This is not to absolve Brown of his sins, alleged and otherwise, but it’s more than you can say for Louis C.K., Matt Lauer or Ryan Adams. None of them has faced his day in court.
Through it all, Brown has yet to face a real career reckoning. Saturday’s concert was the fourth time he’s headlined an arena or amphitheater in Tampa since 2015. To the tens of thousands of #TeamBreezy truthers who keep turning out, the charges and allegations are old news, fake news, fueled by bias and prejudice. Every story that resurfaces Brown’s rap sheet is proof the author’s out to get him, the system’s out to get him, the world’s out to get him.
At what point does it -- can it, should it -- stop?
At what point do we -- can we, should we -- forget about the blowups and restraining orders, and just marvel at the way Brown splits into a backflip and kick-spins a 360 during Drunk Texting?
At what point will fans -- can fans, should fans -- stop screaming with delight when when he clenches up and smolders through Come Together and Girl of My Dreams, and think back to those bulging, purple welts beneath Rihanna’s eyes?
At what point will the world -- can the world, should the world -- stop either hating Brown for sport, or supporting him out of spite?
At Amalie, where fans lined up to buy Chris Brown T-shirts for $55, there were no easy answers. I’ve now covered Brown three times in five years, and Saturday’s performance was easily the best of the three. His stage, flanked by gargantuan inflatable gargoyles and bionic ladies, was ambitious and impressive. He sometimes sat but never sleepwalked, occasionally jolting up in one of those magnificent maneuvers that made his legs twisters and his torso a gyroscope.
Was it worth it?
He flashed back to his more playful, pre-Rihanna days with songs like With You or Run It!, even breaking into a joyous grin during a free-form circle with his dancers. He smiled wider when his fans belted Say Goodbye back to him, when they shrieked to Turn Up the Music, when he and his dancers launched into Broadway-worthy choreography on Wall to Wall.
Does it matter?
He embraced the daffy lunacy of singing “I woke up in Chris Brown’s body,” his chorus from Lil Dicky’s Freaky Friday, and radiated in the love for his latest massive hit, the Drake-assisted No Guidance. And at the end of the show, shirtless and glistening, he passed his spotlight to a dancer named Fifi, who promptly proposed to his girlfriend.
“We love y’all so much,” Brown said. “That made me cry a little.”
Do you buy it?
If you were there, maybe you do. If you weren’t, if you would never, you probably don’t.
And so the beat will go on, driven by promoters who keep booking Brown because they know he sells tickets; support acts who join him because he gets them out of clubs and into arenas; collaborators who continue to record with him because a hit is a hit is a hit; and fans who don’t care about any of it.
As with Chris Brown, don’t look to any of them for remorse. You’ll find none in their eyes, either.