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Are We Eavesdropping On Rihanna And Chris Brown?

Over the past several months, TV shows have been clamoring to interview the pop singer Rihanna, but to no avail. Back in February, Rihanna's boyfriend, Chris Brown, beat her up as they were heading to perform at the Grammy Awards. In late August, he was sentenced to five years' probation for felony assault. Rihanna will finally talk on TV during Good Morning America Thursday, but it might be possible to pick up on how Brown and Rihanna are doing via their music.

They had been like the prince and princess of pop R&B. So last winter's ugly violence was unbelievable. The picture that circulated on the internet of Rihanna's face all busted up was almost irreconcilable with her perfect popstar image. And the idea that sweet-faced Chris Brown could have done that to her? In the stunned silence that followed, we waited for them to explain themselves. For months, neither one released any new music. Now, both of them are back on the radio. I'm scrutinizing every song and video like a mixtape my crush gave me in tenth grade. Listening for a hidden message in every word.

Run This Town

Rihanna came back to the charts late this summer. She headlines Jay Z's single "Run This Town," and she owns the track. In the video, she looks hard, and you can't mess with her. Rihanna's back, and she's badder than ever.

But Chris Brown is back, too. In late September, he released the tight, unapologetic pop song "I Can Transform Ya."

In the "I Can Transform Ya" video, Brown is dancing, surrounded by his trademark Lamborghinis. He doesn't smile once as he hammers out the track. It made me think, "I guess he's forcing himself to move on." But Rihanna doesn't sound done.

Rihanna's next single was "Russian Roulette." It is not a love song. It's about surviving an impossible situation.

"You can see my heart beating," Rihanna sings. "You can see it through my chest / that I'm terrified, but I'm not leaving / I know I must pass this test." Then, a gunshot is heard on the track.

After that gunshot, the very next day, Brown introduced a love ballad called "Crawl."

"Everybody says we're through," he sings, adding, "I hope you haven't said it, too." OK, so he's not over it. But I don't know if Brown can do sweet longing anymore. The pain here isn't sexy; it just sounds like pain.

Rihanna and Brown are probably not creating a dialectical mixtape writ large for us all to hear. But what I do hear in their music is Rihanna saying, "I will not be humiliated by the events of the past year," and Brown replying, "Despite the awful violence you've seen, I want you to think I'm still lovable."

That's a complex conversation for the pop charts.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Zoe Chace explains the mysteries of the global economy for NPR's Planet Money. As a reporter for the team, Chace knows how to find compelling stories in unlikely places, including a lollipop factory in Ohio struggling to stay open, a pasta plant in Italy where everyone calls in sick, and a recording studio in New York mixing Rihanna's next hit.

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