Brown took home four awards, including the viewers' choice prize, amid some confusion at the 11th annual celebration of black musicians, actors and sports people. He led the contenders with six nominations.
In an unfortunate turn, Brown was announced as the winner of the viewers' choice award, and then Rihanna. Canadian rapper Drake awkwardly appeared on stage at the Shrine Auditorium to accept on her behalf.
But at the end of the show, it was revealed that Brown was the rightful winner even though Rihanna's name was on the teleprompter. Alas, that was too late to save the lucky fan who announced the winner from being savaged worldwide on Twitter for her perceived error.
Brown's music career stalled after he pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna in February 2009, setting off a national debate on young, abusive relationships.
He publicly apologised, underwent court-ordered domestic violence counseling, and spent six months performing community service. Earlier this year he topped the U.S. pop album chart, a sign that his career was back on track.
"I know it's been a long road, so I just appreciate every blessing that's been in front of me," said Brown, dressed casually in white T-shirt, denim shorts and a silver kerchief.
He shared BET's best collaboration prize with Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. The latter spent spent most of 2010 behind bars on a weapons charge. Brown's other awards included best male R&B artist and best video.
Michael Vick Honoured
Other winners included professional football player Michael Vick, on the comeback trail after serving 19 months in federal prison for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring. He was named best sportsman, but was not on hand to accept the award.
Representing the other side of the law was prison guard-turned-rapper Rick Ross, who was a frequent performer on stage. At one point, the portly star unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a notable pair of breasts.
"I feel like you should put a sports bra on," host Kevin Hart said afterward.
Soul star Cee Lo Green used his expansive girth to better effect during a tribute to Patti LaBelle. He dressed as the flamboyant R&B icon as he belted out her signature tune Somebody Loves You Baby.
"You scared me," LaBelle said afterwards.
In a decision that averted a family feud, singer/actors Willow and Jaden Smith shared the Young Star award, while their father Will Smith looked on with tears welling in his eyes. Willow, who had a novelty hit last year with "Whip My Hair," thanked her parents for "letting us push harder and keeping us on track with our music and stuff."
Jaden Smith's 17-year-old friend Justin Bieber, ubiquitous on the awards circuit recently, appeared on stage to present an award and engage in some scripted salacious banter with female hip-hop artist winner Nicki Minaj, almost 10 years his senior.
List of winners
Following is a complete list of winners at the BET Awards, honouring black entertainers and sports stars, held in Los Angeles on Sunday.
Viewers' Choice - Look at Me Now, Chris Brown, featuring Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes
Male R&B artist - Chris Brown
Female R&B artist - Rihanna
Male hip-hop artist - Kanye West
Female hip-hop artist - Nicki Minaj
Collaboration - "Look at Me Now," Chris Brown, featuring Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes
New artist - Wiz Khalifa
Group - Diddy-Dirty Money
Video of the year - "Look at Me Now," Chris Brown, featuring Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes
Video director the year - Chris Robinson
Young star (tie) - Willow and Jaden Smith
Actor - Idris Elba
Actress - Taraji P. Henson
Movie - "For Colored Girls"
Gospel - Mary Mary
Centric - Marsha Ambrosius
Sportsman - Michael Vick
Sportswoman - Serena Williams
International act (UK) - Tinie Tempah
International act (Africa) (tie) - 2Face Idibia (Nigeria), D'Banj (Nigeria)