People who hate Chris Brown – and there are many – might sum him up as the bad boy of R&B, chiefly famous for beating up Rihanna. They would probably describe the singer as a former teen sensation who tried to cheat his way out of his community service sentence for the assault, two-timed Rihanna when she briefly took him back, and smashed up a TV studio dressing room just because the presenter asked about their relationship. He's the thug with a short fuse who picked fights with A-list rappers Frank Ocean and Drake, the misogynist responsible for lyrics such as, "I super soak that ho/Show 'em no love/Just throw 'em a towel" and the Twitter loudmouth who responded to one woman's critical tweet with "take them teeth out when u Sucking my dick HOE" (sic).
Obviously, that would not be how Brown sees himself. An opportunity to present his version of events has been elusive, however, because all summer he kept having to postpone our meeting due to a hectic schedule of court appearances, as well as a seizure, which his doctor put down to "nonstop negativity".
So much has been written about Brown, and so much of it ugly, that I think, well, who could blame him for being wary? Before long, I begin to suspect he's actually just bored. He's talking about his album, but making no sense, so I suggest we pretend I've just landed from Mars and know nothing about him. Here is a clean slate: his chance to define himself, to explain from scratch who he is and what he does. What would he say? As if registering my presence for the first time, he pauses, almost glances across, smiles – "That's a good question" – and considers it carefully in silence.
"Well, I would say I'm an inspirational guidelines book. You can take my life story or scenarios or songs and relate to them, and apply them to your everyday life. You know, whether it be personal or musical, I just think I'm a walking art piece, just a ball of creativity." Were it not for what he refers to as "the incident with Rihanna", he would now be "bigger than life. Yeah." He can't think of anything he's bad at, apart from "just being able to relax and sleep".
He lost his virginity when he was eight years old, to a local girl who was 14 or 15. Seriously? "Yeah, really. Uh-huh." He grins and chuckles. "It's different in the country." Brown grew up with a great gang of boy cousins, and they watched so much porn that he was raring to go. "By that point, we were already kind of like hot to trot, you know what I'm saying? Like, girls, we weren't afraid to talk to them; I wasn't afraid. So, at eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it. You can be the best at it." (Now 24, he doesn't want to say how many women he's slept with: "But you know how Prince had a lot of girls back in the day? Prince was, like, the guy. I'm just that, today. But most women won't have any complaints if they've been with me. They can't really complain. It's all good.")
The search for explanations having proved fruitless, we talk about how his arrest and conviction affected him. "That was probably, like, one of the most troubling times in my life, because I was 18 or 19, so being able to feel the hatred from more adult people, you don't understand it at the time, because you made a mistake." But he knew one thing: "I'm going to come back, I know the music that I'm doing, how hard I work, is not just for nothing." He found himself writing seven or eight songs a night, "just out of pure… I wouldn't say heartbreak, but just pure ambition. To prove people wrong. So from there it wasn't really a problem. I just focused on what was necessary, abiding by all the stuff I had to do legally and professionally."
He has since released three more albums, and won a Grammy, but was incensed when in August a judge ordered a further 1,000 hours of community service. Prosecutors accused him of having claimed to clock up hours when he was actually abroad, or on camera performing on the other side of the country, and demanded jail. But Brown denied it and the additional 1,000 hours was the judge's compromise ruling.
"But that's not a compromise! Community service, that shit is a bitch. I'll be honest – and you can quote me on that – that is a motherfucker there. For me, I think it's more of a power trip for the DA. I can speak freely now, because I don't really care what they say about it, but as far as, like, the 1,000 extra hours they gave me, that's totally fricking bananas."
Did it seem vindictive to him? "Oh, absolutely. They want me to be the example. Young black kids don't have the fairer chances. You can see Lindsay Lohan in and out of court every day, you see Charlie Sheen, whoever else, do what they want to do. There hasn't been any incident that I started since I got on probation, even with the Frank Ocean fight, the Drake situation, all those were defence modes. People think I just walk around as the aggressor, this mad black guy, this angry, young, troubled kid, but I'm not. I'm more and more laid-back. It's just that people know if they push a button, it'll make more news than their music. Attaching themselves to me, good or bad, will benefit them."
He says his court-ordered 52-week programme of anger management helped him learn to keep his temper. But then he adds, "I think the actual class I went to was a little bit sexist." What does he mean? "It was beneficial because it made me cater more to a woman's thoughts and a woman's needs, and how to handle situations. But the class itself, no disrespect to the class, but the class itself only tells you you're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong." I ask him to elaborate, but he seems to check himself. "Well, I don't want to get too far into that."
He describes "the Rihanna incident" as "probably the biggest wake-up call for me. I had to stop acting like a little teenager, a crazy, wild young guy." But when I ask if that's how he thinks of himself when he looks back at that time, he snaps back, "No, not at all" as if the description had been mine and not his. "Cos you can talk with all my girls that I did mess with before, and it's never been a violent history." Then he switches again: "But at the same time, I learned from it, and it was almost like… I wouldn't say it happened for a reason, but it was something to trigger my mind to be more of a mature adult. To handle myself in situations, don't throw tantrums, don't be a baby about it."
He worries all the time that the paparazzi will make up a story and land him back in trouble. "We can be in the studio and they can be outside and run a story right now to say Chris Brown just beat up three old women back there, and stabbed the parking guy. No footage, no evidence, but I'd be in trouble." This summer, he was taken to court over an alleged hit-and-run, which he accused the paparazzi of inventing; the charge was dismissed.
We have a moment of minor farce when I ask if the paparazzi bother him outside his own home. "Nah, we run 'em away from there. Yeah. I got a couple of guard dogs." What kind, I ask, and he looks slightly confused. "Er, crazy." What breed is that? "Not literally dogs I'm talking about. Just homies. They handle it."
Brown's band of loyal homies date from the aftermath of the assault on Rihanna. "They were there when nobody else was there, when I was at my lowest. The people that really cared, that's who I hold dearest. And I root for the underdog, so I'm around the guys that… well, my friends aren't the guys that society would label perfect. People kind of, like, look nervous when I'm going to walk in with all my friends. And I'm not even a rapper, I'm a singer," he points out proudly. I ask if he likes knowing that people feel nervous. "No, it's just what generally attracts me to my friends. I'm not going to stop being your friend because somebody doesn't approve of it. That would be, like, almost being phoney to myself."
Brown has two ambitions now. One is to be wealthy. "I don't want to be rich, I want to be wealthy. There's a difference, you know? I'm rich, but I'm not in the $200m mark." The other is "to sell ground-breaking numbers on an album. Just to be able to have that moment to say, I did it. So as like, I have a stamp. I would really like to mean something to the world, instead of me just being this fungus." Hang on a minute: fungus? "Yeah, like the decay of society. I don't want to be the decay of society, I'd like to be the uplifting part."
Given his evident desire to leave the past behind him, I still can't understand why last year he got a tattoo on his neck that looks just like the infamous police photographs of Rihanna's bruised and battered face. He has always disputed the resemblance, insisting it's just a "random woman", so I ask if he'd realised it would be misconstrued and cause so much fuss.
"I really don't care. A tattoo's a tattoo; it's my body, my skin."
Suddenly he is sulky and petulant. "My favourite line is, 'Fuck you.' I like giving the world a big fuck you. Every tattoo I have is a big fuck you. So it's just, like, this is just me, and I'm the guy who's going to be just the same guy at all times."
But he's talked a lot about how much he has changed, so people are bound to be confused about why he'd therefore choose a tattoo of that nature. "No," he says coldly. "I think you misinterpret what nature that is. You think the tattoo is Rihanna's face, but it's not."
But did he anticipate that people would mistake it for her? "I've just cleared this up, this is not Rihanna's face," he repeats sharply. "I just got a tat. Like I say, a tat is on my body, so it's personal. I liked how it looked, so I thought I'd get it done. It's all good."
I try once more – had he known what people would think, would he have got the tattoo done anyway? – and he snaps.
"No, I'm not going to walk around every day of my life depending on the opinions of other people. Because if I do that, I'll just be trying to please everybody and that's not what I'm here for." He glowers. "Just make music. If they like it, they like it. If they don't, fuck you."