Chris Brown celebrated his 25th birthday in jail last May by making his own "spread cake": chocolate, peanut butter, bread and milk.
"Mix it up in a little cereal bowl and let it sit for a little while. It comes out and you've got a nice little cake," Brown said, laughing. "A couple of the homies taught me how to do it."
Accustomed to the high life since he became an R&B star at 16, Brown was brought low by his three months in lockup. He emerged last June determined not to slide back into his old ways. Jail had changed things.
"I've always reneged on a lot of my situations. But I think that's a part of growing up and learning. For me, now I have a better sense of what's important — being that I was incarcerated, being that I've had the bad stuff happen to me," he said in an interview. "You can't continuously mess up. You're not going to get that many chances. I'm not saying by my peers, but I'm just saying by God in general. For me and my spirit, I just want to be able to have some peace, be able to chill and do what I love — because I was blessed with this opportunity and this talent, so I don't want to waste it."
Brown — a brilliant dancer and talented singer who is among the most electrifying young performers — presents himself as a maturing artist who recognizes past mistakes. He's in court-ordered twice-a-week therapy. He trimmed his entourage from 30 people to single digits. He ended simmering feuds, including one with rapper-singer Drake. His sixth album, "X," released last week, includes plenty of sex- and party-focused songs, yes, but also reflective and heartfelt lyrics that acknowledge and take responsibility for his struggles.
Sitting in his publicist's office a day after his album was released, Brown smiled easily and seemed eager to show that he had turned a corner — but acknowledged he still has room to grow.
"Sometimes you've got to touch the stove to see that it's hot. And I'm one of those guys that does that all of the time," he said. "Sometimes I might be my own worst enemy. I'm not always going to make the right decision."
He was quick to criticize the series of angry outbursts that culminated in an incident in Washington, D.C., last October when he punched a man who tried to get into a picture Brown was taking with two women. That led eventually to a jail sentence for violation of his probation, instituted after he was convicted of the infamous 2009 pre-Grammy Awards attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna.
"At first I went mentally into being aggressive, and being totally like unapproachable with situations because I didn't feel comfortable with myself living my life, as far as whatever mistakes I made, because I was constantly being judged," he said. Now, Brown said he recognizes, "I'm an entertainer. And I influence a lot of people, young and older. ... Before, I was out of hand. So I think now it's time to grow up."
Gail Mitchell, senior correspondent covering hip-hop and R&B at Billboard magazine, said the Grammy winner has a reputation as a "studio rat," recording and collaborating constantly with his peers. She interviewed Brown for a cover story after he got out of jail.
"I think he needed a wake-up call and maybe that's what it was, maybe that's what it took," she said. "I don't think there's any shame in that."
Brown said he feels a kinship with Justin Bieber, 20, another pop star whose once-immaculate image has been sullied by repeated public bad behavior.
"Growing up in the public eye, being younger with all of the success — girls, money, everything — it can get to your head real fast. ... I was arrogant, cocky, thought I was invincible at one point," Brown said. "We don't get the benefit of growing up behind the camera. We don't get the benefit of making our mistakes and nobody hears about it."
The question now is whether Brown can avoid further mistakes. Someone shot and injured Death Row Records founder Suge Knight at a Brown-hosted party last month. Does trouble simply follow Brown, no matter what?
"It's 50-50. You could say that trouble follows me. And you could also say I create my own trouble," he said. He mostly sticks to throwing house parties lately but, "I'm not in control of going to a club and it getting shot up."
Brown has been able to climb pop charts despite legal trouble: "Loyal" peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 while Brown was jailed. The rude, flippant song was the fourth single from "X'' to be released. Brown said he was surprised at its success.
"It's my version of TLC's 'No Scrubs,'" he said. "It just goes to show that sometimes when you put out a super big record with substance, that's not the key all the time. Sometimes you want to just put a record out there that might be disrespectful, just have fun."
Brown's album was released at a time of increased public discussion about domestic violence following TMZ's release of video showing NFL star Ray Rice punching out his then-fiancee in an elevator. The singer said he accepts that he'll be linked with the issue for the foreseeable future.
"There could be a million other celebrities who were in the same situation, but because of the high-profile case and whatever it is, they're going to always automatically associate myself with it," he said. "When the media associates me, it's to do a bigger message. It's to show the world and raise awareness for it and definitely show that it's not OK."