Rihanna - Unapologetic Review
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 11.20.2012
After a year of controversy, Rihanna returns with her fourth studio album in as many years with the aptly-titled Unapologetic. But does it vindicate her or give her something to apologize for after all? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
1. "Phresh Out the Runway" (3:42)
2. "Diamonds" (3:45)
3. "Numb" (featuring Eminem) (3:25)
4. "Pour It Up" (2:41)
5. "Loveeeeeee Song" (featuring Future) (4:16)
6. "Jump" (4:24)
7. "Right Now" (featuring David Guetta) (3:01)
8. "What Now" (4:03)
9. "Stay" (featuring Mikky Ekko) (4:00)
10. "Nobody's Business" (featuring Chris Brown) (3:36)
11. "Love Without Tragedy" / "Mother Mary" (6:58)
12. "Get It Over With" (3:31)
13. "No Love Allowed" (4:09)
14. "Lost in Paradise" (3:35)
Is there a pop artist out there that is as constant a fixture on the airwaves and singles charts as Rihanna? The Barbadian pop singer has maintained a Herculean pace of production since bursting onto the music scene in 2005, releasing a new album almost every year and unleashing a never-ending string of pop hits. Of course in the current pop music era, no amount of pop success can come without a heavy dose of one's personal life and few have become a more tantalizing target for gossip rags than Rihanna. Whether it is her increasingly-controversial music videos, her possible use of drugs, various legal battles or (of course) her incredibly-publicized assault at the hands of her then-boyfriend Chris Brown that has recently turned into a constant stream of "are they or aren't they," Rihanna's private life has almost accomplished the hefty task of stealing the spotlight from her many chart-toppers. For the past three Novembers she has been a fixture on the month's list of new album releases with Rated R (2009), Loud (2010) and Talk That Talk (2011). 2012 is no different and thus Rihanna has brought forth unto the world her seventh studio album Unapologetic, to give us another twelve months worth of chart-topping dominance.
Many people can (and will) make mention of the appropriateness of this album's title in relation to its content, and frankly that is because it's kind of unavoidable. The pop singer has drawn no small amount of criticism over the past year for a number of issues, not the least of which is her apparent willingness to mend fences with Brown after their highly-publicized incident and his continued erratic behavior. On Unapologetic, Rihanna takes it upon herself to proclaim as clearly as possible how much she doesn't care whether you don't like what she's chosen to do in her personal life. She could care less if anything she does offends someone, and just in case that isn't clear she makes the stunningly in-your-face "Phresh Out the Runway" the opening track. With a distorted synth sound playing over her, Rihanna busts out lyrics that make Nicki Minaj look PG by comparison ("I bet you n**gas gon' be like 'Bitch, this my f**king song'"); it's essentially a hardcore rap song that is sung instead of spat but lacks nothing in the way of attitude. The problem is that it feels like Rihanna's trying too hard; she even sings in that opening track, "How could you be so hood, but you so f**king pop?/How could you be so fun, and sound like you selling rocks?" It's one thing to throw out potentially-controversial lyrics and seem sincere about the sentiment behind them; here Rihanna sounds like she's pandering in order to advance her R-rated attitude to NC-17 just because she wants to try it for a song.
From there we get into her first single, "Diamonds." This is certainly a better track than the first one; it has a solid midtempo pace and Rihanna is on more stable ground here on a song that has already become a huge hit. That being said, it lacks the memorable stature of "We Found Love" or "Only Girl (In the World)." To go from such a gratuitously controversial song to such a safe one causes an audio sensation vaguely akin to whiplash and it doesn't do the album any favors. On "Numb" Rihanna finds a good, solid middle ground with a slowed-down pace and an inspired verse by Eminem that does a lot of the heavy lyrical lifting. Next up is "Pour It Up," a song about the strip clubs that she has famously been seen going to and includes some opinions about our opinions ("Who cares how you haters feel/And I still got my money...So who cares about what I spend/And I still got my money"). It could be a dead-eyed failure if not for the casual way she presents it all. There's no in-your-face attitude and it works the better for that fact.
After the infinitely forgettable slow jam that is the wackily-named "Loveeeee Song" (because its seven E's, and it's her seventh album), Rihanna decides that it's time to get personal and the results start to go downhill. Now don't get me wrong; any artist has a perfectly reasonable expectation that opinions of their personal life should not impact their professional lives. However, Rihanna makes that impossible by seamlessly integrating the two into such a tightly-bonded pairing that you cannot evaluate the one out of context with the other. It gets off to a decent start as with "Jump," she conjures images of a past lover with whom she acrimoniously parted but clearly wants to get back with ("You don't need another lover/don't you let it go/I already got it covered/let the others know") before the song takes an odd yet not entirely unwelcome dive into dubstep before coming back out as if nothing had happened for the next verse. "Right Now," which features the work of David Guetta, is a far less effective use of dubstep and it distracts from what could have been a better song. Give the girl credit for her continued experimentation with different sounds, but it doesn't work here as well as she wants it to.
Things really kick into relationship-regret mode with "What Now," a sure single that places a piano arrangement with dance-pop beats and then a guitar riff at the end; it is the everything-including-the-kitchen sink approach to song making. "Stay" is a restrained piano number that eschews the club beats and features Mikky Ekko's solid vocal work in a mournful number holding a moratorium on a love affair...and then the centerpiece to the album hits, as Chris Brown shows up on the unsubtly-named "Nobody's Business." This is less a song than a musical mission statement about her life, she clearly courts controversy as she and Brown repeat lyrics about being love's persona and making out in a Lexus, the latter a particularly disturbing thought when you consider that their famous assault case took place within the confines of a car. All the way they're singing "It ain't nobody's business but mine and my baby's," a fact that is fairly disingenuous when the song makes you realize how clearly Rihanna and Brown are trying to profit off the very incident that they keep scornfully telling people to let go of so that they can live their lives. You can't keep from comparing their recent statements that they aren't involved with the fact that they openly sing to each other "Always be my boy/you'll always be my girl."
From that point it's all about Mr. Brown. On "Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary" she sings, "You used to be this boy I loved/And I used to be this girl of your dreams/Who knew the course of this one drive/Injured us fatally" and adds, "What's love without tragedy." In the second part of the song she sings, "I'm prepared to die in the moment/Cause even forever ain't forever." Remind me again how it's nobody's business...or are we supposed to forget that because it was a whole song ago? The theme continues through the final three songs, but at least on "No Love Allowed" the reggae sound makes for something different, raising it above the rest of the album's last half.
Standout Tracks: "Numb," "Pour It Up," "Stay," "No Love Allowed"
Skippable: "Phresh Out the Runway," "Right Now," "What Now," "Nobody's Business"
The 411: Ultimately, Rihanna's undoing on Unapologetic is her willingness to cash in on her personal controversy. It is one thing to use one's music career to explore the emotional issues of one's past, but it is another entirely to play the media game to stir those events in one's private life for record sales, which is clearly what has been done here. The last half of the album falls into that trap while the first half schizophrenically alternates between the kind of crassness that made Talk that Talk such an uneven album and a few truly solid pop songs. In the end, Unapologetic is at least more interesting of an album than its predecessor in sound and opportunity for speculation, but still not a good one. It's time for Rihanna to take a break, as she has clearly run out of new things to say.