It was just after midnight on 8 February 2009, that Brown beat and choked Rihanna in the front seat of his rented Lamborghini, before leaving her bloodied and alone on a Los Angeles pavement. Brown was 19, Rihanna 20; both had been due to perform at the Grammys the following evening. Shocking police photographs, later leaked, showed Rihanna's face badly bruised by the attack, which has defined the perception of both stars ever since. Brown was given a restraining order, then sentenced to five years of probation and six months of community service.
In February 2011, however, the restraining order was downgraded to allow Brown and Rihanna to appear at awards ceremonies together. Last year, to the disgust of many, Brown was invited to perform (twice) at the Grammys, and even took home the award for best R&B album. This year, he is expected to attend alongside Rihanna, who told the March 2013 issue of Rolling Stone that they were once again an item. "He made a mistake, and he's paid his dues," she said. "And sometimes people need support and encouragement, instead of ridicule and criticism and bashing."
Yet despite her protestations, Brown has done little to prove he's a changed man. In June 2012, he was involved in a brawl with rapper Drake at a New York nightclub, which left eight people injured. On 27 January, he allegedly punched rival R&B star Frank Ocean in a dispute over a parking spot at a West Hollywood recording studio. Ocean claimed afterwards that Brown had used a homophobic slur and threatened to shoot him, though he decided not to press charges.
Now, Los Angeles prosecutors are claiming that Brown never undertook the community service to which he was sentenced. In a motion that Brown's lawyer describes as "scurrilous, libellous and defamatory", the Los Angeles District Attorney's office questioned whether police in Virginia, Brown's home state, had properly overseen the work he supposedly put in at a daycare centre that once employed his mother. They demanded he serve his sentence again, this time in California. As Brown went before a judge in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Rihanna sat in the front row and blew him a kiss.
The singer was also accompanied to court by his mother, Joyce Hawkins, who divorced his father Clinton, a prison officer, when Brown was a boy. Brown, who was born in May 1989 in Tappahannock, Virginia, a riverside town of just over 2,000, taught himself to sing and dance, and has identified Michael Jackson as a major musical influence. Some might say he also shares a martyr complex with the King of Pop: during a tribute to Jackson at a 2010 awards show, Brown fell to his knees and wept during his own cover version of Man in the Mirror.
It may come as a surprise to those who know him only for his criminal record that Brown's music is pure pop, delivered in a temperate tenor: catchy ballads and infectious dance tracks entirely at odds with his thuggish personal reputation. His 2008 single Forever became a YouTube hit after it was used as the soundtrack for a wedding dance video that went viral. The clip, which has since been viewed almost 80 million times, now includes a link to a domestic violence charity.
Six months after the assault, Brown released a YouTube video of his own, in which he said sorry to Rihanna and to his fans, claiming he accepted full responsibility. Yet he later tired of apologising for his actions. In 2011, after Robin Roberts, the host of ABC's Good Morning America, pressed him on the subject of the attack during a live interview, Brown reportedly retreated to his dressing room, where he tore off his shirt, raged at a producer and other staff, and threw at least one heavy object, damaging a window.
It's not implausible to attribute Brown's assault on Rihanna, and their subsequent reconciliation, to a cycle of violence. In a 2009 interview with Larry King, Brown discussed the abuse he'd witnessed as a child, when his former stepfather Donnelle Hawkins allegedly beat his mother. Last year, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna suggested her relationship with Brown had been a rerun of her own parents' abusive relationship. The Barbadian-born singer said she believed her father Ronald was a good person.