'Where my single ladies at?" Chris Brown asked over the screams of the Electric Factory crowd on Sunday night. "You know, your boy's single, too."
It's hard to imagine there was a person at the sold-out show, right down to the bouncers and bartenders, who didn't know that Brown is currently unattached. Even people who can't sing a note of Brown's songs know that his relationship with fellow R&B singer Rihanna ended in February, when he was arrested for assaulting her.
Brown, who pleaded guilty to a felony charge, avoided jail time, but the cultural ramifications were not so easily escaped. The widely disseminated photograph of Rihanna's bruised and swollen face cast a dark shadow over Brown's image as a purveyor of smooth, sexually confident love jams, and made his cocksure bravado seem less playful and more sinister.
Brown entered into the well-established rituals of public rehabilitation: appearances on Larry King Live and 20/20, the latter timed to coincide with the release last week of his new album, Graffiti. But his gestures were incomplete, lacking the requisite teary catharsis, and the album itself shows few signs of contrition.
"Crawl," which Brown performed on Sunday, envisions the tortuous path from romantic estrangement to happy couplehood, and "So Cold," which was omitted from his set, is a misbehaving lover's plea for forgiveness, but their boilerplate mea culpas are short on genuine soul-searching. There's nothing like the intensity of emotion Brown vented on his Twitter feed Friday night, when he lashed out profanely at retailers he accused of "blackballing" his album by failing to stock it.
Brown's main agenda seems to be getting back to business as usual, which went over just fine with the audience, many of them younger than Brown's 20 years. Elaborately made-up young women pushed close to the stage, hoping to catch his eye, and young children balanced on their parents' shoulders, their heads dipping as the show went past 10 o'clock.
Announcing the date as part of a "fan appreciation tour," Brown stuck largely to the hits from his first two albums, although he hit the stage with a lip-synced version of the new single "I Can Transform Ya," a hard-edged track that offers the lucky listener a chance to submit to the singer's extreme makeover. Brown switched to a live microphone after the opening volley, but he still spent more time dancing than singing, letting the backing track carry the melody of "Run It" while he and his four backup dancers went through their moves.
Midway through, the show morphed into a full-bore dance performance. As Brown's DJ clicked through old-school hits from Montell Jordan and Boyz II Men, Brown flipped and swiveled with fluid grace, the crowd keening as he thrust his hips and extended his tongue. That he went several minutes without singing a note didn't audibly dampen their enthusiasm. Just being Chris Brown was good enough.