The courtroom drama may be behind him for now, but the repercussions of Chris Brown's guilty plea to felony assault — which resulted in five years probation, 180 hours of community service, mandatory counseling and strict restrictions on contact with his ex-girlfriend Rihanna (formal sentencing is scheduled for August) — have yet to be determined. Will the judicious admission sink the 20-year-old singer's once flourishing career or give it a boost? In the court of public opinion, the jury's still out, while industry experts say Brown needs a moment of catharsis before he can think about moving forward.
"His fans and the people who've looked up to Chris need to hear him say that he messed up," says Melissa Chase, the Assistant Program Director and afternoon jock at Richmond pop station Q94 in Brown's home state of Virginia. "And not because the court is making him say it, but because he actually realizes what he did was wrong. He needs to cry it out on the couch with Oprah." Brown's only public statements so far include his initial proclamation that he was "sorry and saddened" and a bizarre appearance with Bow Wow in an impromptu video during which he proclaimed, "I ain't a monster."
Longtime media consultant Elliot Mintz, who managed more than his share of crises having the Hilton family as clients, concurs with Chase, adding that Brown has one thing going for him. "We are a forgiving society," he says. "His role is to convince people that he accepts responsibility for what he's done and to deal with his issues. After that, his popularity will depend on talent."
But PR vet Howard Bragman, author of the fame navigation manual Where's My Fifteen Minutes, contends that Brown's rehabbing efforts thus far have been "kind of mediocre" and tell the wrong story. "As contrived as it sounds, I wanted to see photos of him going to church with his mother, instead of water-skiing and clubbing," says Bragman, who did damage control for Isaiah Washington and Monica Lewinsky. "Which is why it's smart to have him do the community service requirements in Virginia, where he's out of the public eye and away from the paparazzi. But now is when you start negotiating for that big interview, planning the image rehab and the music, and working backwards. There's a good 10 months before the next Kids Choice Awards, but you have to build."
To that end, Brown's forthcoming third album, Graffiti, is in the works, with a least a handful of tracks already completed, according to a source (Keri Hilson is among the writer-producers rumored to be working on it), but a release date has yet to be set. Is it trepidation on the part of Jive Records? Is the label still taking the public's temperature? Chase asserts that a pop star's private downfall doesn't necessarily mean their sales will also take a dive. "There are a lot of artists with rap sheets that are still successful and selling millions of albums and downloads," she says. "From the beginning, our listeners were very acknowledging of the fact that, yes, he did something wrong, but it didn't seem to have an effect on what they thought of his music. There's that line — we want the artist's personal life to be something we judge them on, but if they're putting out great music, it's kind of hard to make that distinction."
But when Brown is ready to release new material, he'll have to face the music head-on, as fans and casual listeners will undoubtedly want an explanation — and silence is not advised. "If he's doing interviews at radio stations, they're going to ask about it," says Juliette Harris, who represents scandal-prone brothers Nick and Aaron Carter. "All the handlers in the world can try to stop it, but if he doesn't talk, that's when the media may retaliate and say, â€˜If he's not going to talk about it, we're not going to have him on.' But I think people will open the doors and talent will shine through."
Complicating matters beyond the next record, however, is Brown's five-year probation. What would feel like an eternity for any twentysomething is an even riskier commitment for someone accustomed to his jet-setting lifestyle. Says Bragman, "He's gotta watch it. He can't risk a DUI or use recreational drugs — any of these things could put him in jail. The scrutiny is going to be hyper-intense everywhere he goes, and five years is a long time for a 20-year-old rock star to keep his nose clean. He should just go to a monastery for a while."