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Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, and the Myth of Music Video Redemption

When wayward stars tell their stories on camera, they can reveal more than they meant to

When Beyoncé simultaneously dropped 14 music videos in late 2013, it created a seismic shift in the role of the music video in pop mythmaking. That precedent was invoked again last year for Justin Bieber’s 13-video album companion Purpose: The Movement. In December, Chris Brown followed suit with an eight-video suite of his own, tied to the release of his latest album, Royalty. Like Bey and Bieber before Brown, his videos – which the singer directed himself – are highlighted by their ornate choreography and episodic storytelling. Yet where Beyoncé and Purpose helped usher in new eras for their creators, pushing a transfixing perfectly human dynamism and Christian-lite manhood, respectively, Royalty raises the question: What the fuck is going on with Chris Brown?

Royalty’s eight videos posit a cartoonish perspective on women and a lifestyle that would be ill-advised even if Brown didn’t routinely court personal controversy. The video for “Liquor” features a story line suggesting that Brown has been taken advantage of by a woman who put a roofie in his glass. The portrayal of date rape as anything but that is further complicated by Brown’s enthusiasm for what “she” put in his drink (“There’s something in this liquor / The air is getting thicker / What did you put in my cup, girl? / ’Cause I want some”). This theme of being ambiguously victimized by women comes up in several of Brown’s Royalty videos. In the “Fine By Me” video, the singer chases a young Kim Kardashian lookalike down an alley — it’s unclear if he knows her — and follows her up a stairwell into a liminal space where he is asked to change into a new outfit. An Oz-like evildoer asks, “Remember this girl? The drink she gave you had more than just a kick in it…” over a flashback of the woman dropping a pill into his drink. Later, in the “Wrist” video, he is stalked by a stilettoed woman who, again, drugs him into submission. The narrative here is perplexing at best. Does he think date rape is a joke? Does he think men are victims more often than we think? Why does every woman in the saga want to seduce and/or kidnap him? In the cosmology of these videos, women are consistently committing wrongs against men using the tools that men more often use against women (like date rape drugs); the female leads are repeat offenders with Chris Brown at their mercy.

The underlying theme of victimhood is one Chris Brown has embraced often in the past, as in a 2015 collaboration with graffitti artist Kai Aspire, which depicted a monster surrounded by microphones and cameras alongside a picture of Brown surrounded by similar conditions. “Don't always believe what you read,” the artist wrote in the caption. “The media has taken a living legend, and turned him into a monster.” Elsewhere, on the extreme fringes of his fandom, the idea of Brown as a victim extends to febrile allegations that his 2009 assault of Rihanna was somehow a frame-up.

Yet despite his anecdotal professions of innocence, the videos for “Anyway,” “Picture Me Rollin’,” and “Zero,” while all typically well-choreographed, come strangely close to endorsing the churlish behavior that Brown has publicly denounced. In “Anyway,” he punches a guy cold for standing up an ex-girlfriend. In “Picture Me Rollin’,” one of Brown’s friends begins a phone call by yelling at a scantily clad “bitch” to “get off the Lambo” before telling Brown that he “can’t fuck all these bitches without you.” (The friend is inviting Brown to a party, which turns into a dance rave; the video ends with a group of friends at this party circling in on and beating up the Dr. Evil character who first makes an appearance in the “Fine By Me” video.) In the video for “Zero” — a song about how little Chris Brown cares about his ex and what other people think about him — the narrative sticks closely to the lyrics. Brown and a team of b-boys dance through some dark alleys after Brown’s girlfriend kicks him out, as Brown sings, “Zero zero zero zero zero zero zero zero zero zero zero / That’s how many fucks I give.” (The album art says it all.) The video ends with a cameo from dynastically wealthy poker player Dan Bilzerian, the notorious Instagram personality known as the “Internet’s biggest playboy,” whose daily image shares are a mix of soft-core porn, insane amounts of guns, and anything combining the two. Brown pantomimes a series of shallow thrusts when he sees Bilzerian buying perhaps hundreds of condoms in advance of his evening with two long-haired, model-esque “homies” (Bilzerian’s words).

The suggestive posturing of scantily clad women in music videos is nothing new, of course. But Brown's habit of addressing many of the women in this series as talismans of ill will and mere sexual gratification makes it seem like he's taking cues from 1980s music videos like Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” and Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again," in which women serve the sole purpose of satisfying the male gaze. It’s all tits and ass, long limbs and suggestive gestures — a highly constructed form of sexuality that implies a helplessness, a forlorn boredom, or a need. In Brown’s videos, women play a similarly passive role: “His” woman exercises very little intention other than to work out in a Victoria’s Secret sports bra or to have sex with him in the shower.

If this is truly Brown’s unfiltered artistic vision — “It’s not my job to be your role model; my job is to be your inspiration,” he once told Vibe — then it speaks volumes about what's been left in obscurity. Typically, when a big artist drives the narrative of his or her own art, it is seen as an opportunity to translate a personal message that would otherwise get lost in the maelstrom of someone else’s creative vision. If much of the dialogue surrounding Chris Brown concerns whether or not he is capable of “moving on” from his past, the Royalty videos portray a very familiar Chris Brown: an artist who continues to be creatively, personally, and professionally confused.

Part of this has to do with Brown’s relationship history, convictions, and high-profile court proceedings, which have come to inform the mythos surrounding the artist in a way that typically pits pop music listeners against one another. There’s a camp that rallies for Chris Brown’s redemption — the ignominious “Team Breezy” squad, whose beliefs center around the thought that we shouldn’t define an artist by his legal issues and moral shortcomings — and then there are the stalwart boycotters who choose to disengage with Brown altogether in response to his history with battery. While Royalty is Chris Brown’s sixth No. 1 album on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts, the divide in his perception has resulted in profoundly dichotomous media coverage, wherein critics either view his misogynist perspective and storied past as a permanent blemish, or they pretend it doesn’t exist at all.

In this context, positioning the Royalty video series as a corollary to Justin Bieber’s "Purpose: The Movement" — both of which seem like attempts by a perceived rogue to cast off the chains of his stereotypes — illustrates Brown’s irreconcilability even further. In the year leading up to the release of Purpose, Bieber’s storied tussles with the law threatened to overtake his reputation as one of the most cult-adulated figureheads in the history of popular music. The Purpose video series was meant as a creative apology, a musical atonement filled with aspirational dance sequences that often featured people other than Bieber, who took himself out of the narrative in what felt like a gesture of humility. He also made a song in which he literally asked if it wasn’t too late now to say sorry, which now has over a billion views on YouTube and nearly as many critical think pieces about his triumphant return. Like Bieber, Brown was successful at a very young age, and both artists’ initial career success gave way to fabled relationships with the law. For Bieber, brash behavior manifested in childish indiscretions like egging his neighbor’s property and posting pictures of himself licking a stripper's boob. Chris Brown’s missteps have involved violence, and have landed him in court, rehab, and jail. Unlike Bieber, who used his videos for public reinvention, Brown’s Royalty videos alternately portray him as a petulant playboy or the willing victim to women’s schemes.

Royalty’s videos are confounding – all eight of them treat taboo subjects such as roofies rather recklessly. For an artist who’s worked the better half of his career trying to prove he’s no longer that guy, Chris Brown now seems to give, to quote his recent hit, zero fucks when it comes to consent and respect for women — a thread that was evident even before the videos were made, in view of lyrics like “Just let me rock, fuck you back to sleep, girl / Don't say a word no, don't you talk.” Bieber’s video series, which was creatively helmed by a woman, deflects the narrative focus away from the star and his past mistakes and onto a future vision of himself — a better Bieber, if you will. Not so with Brown, whose video series is keen on demonstrating the myriad ways in which the singer continues to break rules on his own terms — as if in spite of the people who hope to see him clean up his act.

The last video in the series is the one meant to shine a light on the entire series and Brown’s questionable actions within it: “Little More (Royalty)” is dedicated to Chris Brown’s young daughter, Royalty — the symbolic culmination of how he plans to change his ways. Gone are the dark, seedy clubs, the violence, and the alcohol. Instead, Brown plays with his daughter in safe, light, beautiful places: in bed, by the beach, in the kitchen, on the floor. It’s a lovely video with lots of charm. But it feels out of place after so many stories in a row about bad behavior, as though it were tacked on to atone for the liberties taken in previous videos. “Little More (Royalty)” represents the version of Chris Brown that Team Breezy fans want to see more of, but so much of what is portrayed in the rest of his video series suggests that this is not the full story — at least not yet. Brown goes from troubled to reformed in the course of these eight videos, but seven of them luxuriate in the “troubled” phase. There’s a difference between the idea of atonement and the long process it takes to achieve it, which is never addressed in the way that Royalty's story arc would seem to demand. More importantly, there’s a difference between giving an apology and offering an excuse. The Royalty videos address Chris Brown’s concern with the latter, and it shows.