Three years ago, one key question swirled around R&B star Chris Brown: could his career survive? He had just pleaded guilty to felony assault, and was soon to be sentenced to five years' probation and six months' community labour for a brutal attack on his then girlfriend, Rihanna.
The assault occurred the night before the music industry's biggest event of the year, the Grammys; it involved one of the world's biggest stars; and it had been documented in a police photograph which soon began circulating online.
It was also the subject of a police report, which described in extensive detail how Rihanna's head had been shoved against a car window, her face and body punched, her left ear and fingers bitten, and pressure applied to her carotid arteries until she began to lose consciousness.
Brown was still a teenager, a clean-cut star who had dueted with an American Idol winner and made a guest appearance on a Disney TV show. The jury was out on his future.
Three years later the verdict is in. Brown's fifth album, Fortune, was released in the UK this week, and despite poor reviews is expected to reach No 1 on Sunday. The album's first single, Turn Up the Music, released this year, was his first to reach the top of the UK charts. And his new single, Don't Wake Me Up, has a good chance of repeating that success on Sunday.
This caps a period in which the music industry has been championing Brown. In February, he was at the Grammys for the first time since the assault, performing twice, and receiving the award for best R&B album – voted for by industry figures. This was followed by an appearance at the BET awards last Sunday, where he picked up best male R&B artist. And while some radio stations dropped his songs after the assault, many have now reinstated them. Radio 1 started playing his records again in 2011.
Martin Talbot, managing director of the Official Charts Company, says Brown is reaching listeners far beyond his core fanbase, which has always been vocal and committed. "The singles market is very competitive at the moment," he says. "You've had to sell over 100,000 to get to number one recently, so you have to connect with a large number of people." Brown has sold about 900,000 albums in the UK to date, says Talbot, but this would be his first No 1 album here, "so he's peaking right now".
Kanya King, founder of the Mobo awards, says Brown's comeback is due to his "triple threat ability to sing, dance and act". Mr Drew, a DJ and journalist with Echoes magazine, concurs. With Brown's last album, FAME, says Drew – which went to No 1 in the US and No 10 in the UK – "he managed to tap into the R&B market, which he already owned, plus the hip-hop market, and the dance market … So, in one album, in a seemingly non-contrived way, he managed to hit all three bases. Now, I would say, he's the biggest, most relevant R&B artist around."
Brown has been working with some of the biggest stars, songwriters and producers over the past few years — Justin Bieber, Benny Benassi and Polow da Don, among others — and music critic Priya Elan, says this has been central to his success. "He's worked with these really big producers, who just churn out hits for everyone, and if you listen to one of his albums, with all those electronic party bangers and falsetto ballads, they tick every box of what's popular in the charts … That music is about fantasy, about going to a club, having a great time, and it's really, really removed from who he is as a person."
Dodai Stewart, an editor at women's website Jezebel.com, who has written extensively about Brown, suspects many listeners separate his music from his actions, and enjoy the songs regardless.
Brown's notoriety may also be key to his comeback. After his Grammy appearance this year, for instance, many women tweeted messages to the effect that: "Chris Brown can beat me any time."
Drew met Brown at a junket in 2005, when "he was a sweet kid, who could dance a bit, and had a nice smile which the ladies love".
His music was softer then. "But he has basically gone from that," says Drew, "to somebody who revels in his bad boy image." In the long run, this hasn't hurt him. When Brown first pleaded guilty to the assault charge, he was considered the "devil incarnate", says Drew, but in the years since his bad boy image has, ironically, been embraced by the public. "The tattoos, the profanities on his album. People aren't put off by it, because he's seen as a credible artist."
Before the assault, people who weren't R&B fans didn't necessarily know who Brown was, says Drew. "But by association with Rihanna, one of the world's biggest pop stars, that helped him. I wouldn't say necessarily that the incident helped him – I hope not – but definitely having some kind of background story helped build up people's interest."
The support of the stars Brown has worked with has also been important. Most significant was Rihanna's decision to contribute to the remix of Turn Up the Music this year, and to have Brown feature on the remix of her song Birthday Cake. Other female stars have lent support too, including Kelly Rowland, and Cheryl Cole, who said in May: , "It's time we all moved on. That guy is talented as hell."
Laura Snapes, who has written about Brown for NME, says she finds it depressing "that all these artists want him for their track. It really has upped his profile."
After the assault, the consensus was that Brown's comeback depended on a sustained show of contrition. That has not been the case. Last year he responded angrily when asked about the attack on breakfast show, Good Morning America. After his Grammy success this year, he tweeted: "HATE ALL U WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now! That's the ultimate FUCK OFF!" And he is currently involved in a public dispute with a Canadian rapper, Drake.
Lisa King, spokeswoman for Refuge, which campaigns against domestic violence, says she's not surprised by Brown's comeback. "Domestic violence doesn't remain in the headlines for long enough," she says. "It's considered one minute, forgotten the next, and I think that's why we still have such a big problem in this country.
"One in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, two women a week will be killed as a result, and those statistics horrify everyone. But there's nothing really done on a significant campaigning level by the government to really drive those messages home within education." This week Refuge launched their own campaign, fronted by the YouTube star and make-up artist Lauren Luke, to try to get the message to young women in particular that help, support and information is available. King says Brown's success "highlights the fact that nobody's been brave enough to really take a stand and say, 'OK, we're not going to publish your music, we're not going to play your song on the radio.'"
Stewart says we live in a culture that simply doesn't "offer a lot of serious consequences for people who are violent against women".
Charlie Sheen, who has a history of domestic abuse, started appearing in a new sitcom, Anger Management, last month, and there are countless other stars who have committed serious offences against women and gone on to be feted. Sean Connery once infamously told Barbara Walters that, when it came to slapping a woman, "if you've tried everything else … then I think it's absolutely right".
Stewart suspects Brown would have to have killed somebody to be denied an invitation to the Grammys. Then she poses an interesting question about race. What if "he'd beaten, punched and choked Taylor Swift [who is white]? Instead of community service, he might be in jail right now."