Are We Eavesdropping On Rihanna And Chris Brown?

Brown/Rihanna; courtesy of the artists i i

Are Rihanna and Chris Brown sending each other notes over the airwaves? courtesy of the artists hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artists
Brown/Rihanna; courtesy of the artists

Are Rihanna and Chris Brown sending each other notes over the airwaves?

courtesy of the artists

Over the past several months, TV shows have been clamoring to interview the pop singer Rihanna, but to no avail. Back in February, Rihanna's boyfriend, Chris Brown, beat her up as they were heading to perform at the Grammy Awards. In late August, he was sentenced to five years' probation for felony assault. Rihanna will finally talk on TV during Good Morning America Thursday, but it might be possible to pick up on how Brown and Rihanna are doing via their music.

They had been like the prince and princess of pop R&B. So last winter's ugly violence was unbelievable. The picture that circulated on the internet of Rihanna's face all busted up was almost irreconcilable with her perfect popstar image. And the idea that sweet-faced Chris Brown could have done that to her? In the stunned silence that followed, we waited for them to explain themselves. For months, neither one released any new music. Now, both of them are back on the radio. I'm scrutinizing every song and video like a mixtape my crush gave me in tenth grade. Listening for a hidden message in every word.

Run This Town

Rihanna came back to the charts late this summer. She headlines Jay Z's single "Run This Town," and she owns the track. In the video, she looks hard, and you can't mess with her. Rihanna's back, and she's badder than ever.

But Chris Brown is back, too. In late September, he released the tight, unapologetic pop song "I Can Transform Ya."

In the "I Can Transform Ya" video, Brown is dancing, surrounded by his trademark Lamborghinis. He doesn't smile once as he hammers out the track. It made me think, "I guess he's forcing himself to move on." But Rihanna doesn't sound done.

Rihanna's next single was "Russian Roulette." It is not a love song. It's about surviving an impossible situation.

"You can see my heart beating," Rihanna sings. "You can see it through my chest / that I'm terrified, but I'm not leaving / I know I must pass this test." Then, a gunshot is heard on the track.

After that gunshot, the very next day, Brown introduced a love ballad called "Crawl."

"Everybody says we're through," he sings, adding, "I hope you haven't said it, too." OK, so he's not over it. But I don't know if Brown can do sweet longing anymore. The pain here isn't sexy; it just sounds like pain.

Rihanna and Brown are probably not creating a dialectical mixtape writ large for us all to hear. But what I do hear in their music is Rihanna saying, "I will not be humiliated by the events of the past year," and Brown replying, "Despite the awful violence you've seen, I want you to think I'm still lovable."

That's a complex conversation for the pop charts.

Confessionals? Maybe, But Not Their Own

It's hard to listen to new songs from Chris Brown and Rihanna and imagine that they're pouring their hearts out to their fans. All of their biggest hits were written by somebody else.

The first three leaked songs from Rihanna's Rated R, scheduled for a Nov. 23 release, were written by a who's-who of pop and R&B songwriters of the moment. "Wait Your Turn" and "Hard" were written by The-Dream, who also wrote her enormous 2007 hit "Umbrella." Though Rihanna is listed as a co-writer on "Russian Roulette," the singer and songwriter Ne-Yo brought it to her almost completed.

"I played it for her, and she loved it," Ne-Yo told MTV. "[We] went in and knocked it out." Sounds to me like Rihanna may have made a few tweaks, and maybe she — or her publicist — asked Ne-Yo to write something controversial for her, but the words aren't hers.

Rihanna's confirmed second single, "Hard," features Young Jeezy and has her declaring her swagger with lines like, "They can say whatever / I'm-a do whatever / No pain is forever ... Tougher than a lion." We want to believe her, but we know these words belong to someone else.

Brown's hits have always been others', as well. Sean Garrett, Scott Storch, Johnta Austin and the Underdogs are responsible for a lot of his big songs, like "Run It," "With You" and "No Air." It's no different on his upcoming album, Graffiti, due out Dec. 15.

Brown might have taken a bigger role in writing "I Can Transform Ya," the album's lead single, though he shares writing credits with heavy hitters like rapper Lil' Wayne and producer Swizz Beatz. In the song, he brags about cars, bags and money so much, I wonder if his past year helped him mature at all.

Here's a sample: "Wanna fly, we can go anywhere you wanna go / Jimmy Choos in Italy, Louis V in Tokyo / Something like Pinocchio / If you lie down, I'm-a grow." Superficial braggadocio and dumb sex lines. Chris Brown isn't processing Rihannagate here; he just wants to forget it. And his vulnerable love ballad, "Crawl," which some see as an overture to Rihanna, doesn't even have him listed as one of the writers. Adam Messinger and his production team created the song. So much for authentic penance.

Brown and Rihanna's new singles reveal what kept us from seeing domestic violence in their relationship for months. Their art is over-produced, and the lyric sheets they're handed prevent them from telling the stories they really need to tell — like "My boyfriend is hitting me," and "I witnessed abuse when I was a child, and now I don't know how else to express my frustrations."

But, ultimately, we shouldn't expect to really hear them as people in any of the music they sell. And we shouldn't blame them for that, either. No matter how adult their lives may seem, these two are kids. And their careers, like any young stars', are produced, choreographed and manufactured to the hilt.

Ultimately, Rihanna and Brown's respective teams are working to make them seem unshaken by their domestic dispute. But the strange dichotomy of their lead singles sends mixed messages. Rihanna is vulnerable in "Russian Roulette," then back with a vengeance in "Go Hard." Chris Brown is only about bedding women, spending money and buying things in "I Can Transform Ya," and then pines for a lost love in "Crawl."

Not only is this approach from the two inauthentic; it's also confusing. But like so many of us, I just can't stop listening.

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Forever [4 Tracks] [Bonus Video]

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