STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Two pop stars generated an intense reaction when they collaborated on two new songs. Almost three years after singer Chris Brown was convicted of assaulting his then-girlfriend, singer Rihanna, they're back together - at least, musically. The singers intentionally leaked remixes of two songs; both are Rihanna-Chris Brown duets. NPR's Sam Sanders reports on a collaboration that includes some X-rated lyrics.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: The speculation built for days. Rihanna might release a remix to one of her songs, and feature Chris Brown. On Monday, her 24th birthday, Rihanna did it. She tweeted the remix to a track aptly titled "Birthday Cake." And it featured the man who violently assaulted her.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIRTHDAY CAKE REMIX")
CHRIS BROWN, RIHANNA: (Singing) And it's not even my birthday, my birthday, my birthday. And he trying to put his name on it. Make out. Girl, I want to (bleep) you right now. Right now. Been a long time, I been missing your body.
SANDERS: That same day, Chris Brown tweeted a remix to the lead single from his upcoming album. And yep, you guessed it - Rihanna was the featured guest on "Turn Up The Music."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN UP THE MUSIC REMIX")
BROWN, RIHANNA: (Singing) Just turn it up. Just turn it up. Just turn it up. Just turn it up. Turn it up. Just turn it up. Just turn it up. I love you baby, yeah...
SANDERS: The jaws of the Internet collectively dropped.
NATALIE HOPKINSON: Something is not right with them. These are two deeply disturbed individuals that probably need to get off Twitter and spend some time on someone's couch, working it out.
SANDERS: Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor at The Root.com. Like many other writers online, Hopkinson was repulsed by the musical reunion. Headlines called the songs stomach-turning and unbelievable. They critiqued the Rihanna song in particular, for lyrics that blur the line between pleasure and pain, and seem to almost allude to the assault.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIRTHDAY CAKE TWO")
BROWN, RIHANNA: Give it to her in the worst way. Can't wait to blow her candles out. I want that cake, cake, cake, cake, cake... yeah.
SANDERS: For Hopkinson, it wasn't just the explicit nature of the lyrics, or the message the pair's reunion might send about domestic abuse.
HOPKINSON: They're normalizing this incredibly abnormal and deviant behavior. And then on top of that, they're doing it for their own personal gain, their own - the record company's personal gain, the bloggers' personal gain, the clicks, the page views.
SANDERS: But Maura Johnston, of the Village Voice, says wait.
MAURA JOHNSTON: I always am wary of attributing motives to people in pop - especially now, when you have so many ways that you can disseminate a persona that - aren't necessarily your persona.
SANDERS: And disseminating persona is something Brown and Rihanna are very good at. Both are staples of the blogosphere, and each has millions of Twitter followers - who greeted the duo's new music with almost universal support.
One of those Twitter followers was Cherice McGlone, a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C. And for her, the duets were a sign of something more.
CHERICE MCGLONE: I feel like they've been back together for a while. They're just now letting like, the public know.
SANDERS: And you're cool with it?
MCGLONE: I'm cool with it. Like, I love black love.
SANDERS: Yeah, but it wasn't just about love.
MCGLONE: The main goal of both songs - were probably money, publicity. Why not draw attention to my song, generate more revenue? I would do it. Like, make some more money, you know? The public is going to eat that up.
SANDERS: Howard sophomore Earl King, a huge fan, agreed.
HOWARD KING: They're going to make money off it, too - good money. Good money. And it might cause some backlash, but her - their fans are going to support them.
SANDERS: Whether the songs were a wink, a kiss or a money grab, Maura Johnston says she knows one thing about both remixes...
JOHNSTON: I don't think either of the songs is very good at all.
SANDERS: Not that that really matters, at this point.
Sam Sanders, NPR News.