Rihanna, the world’s most prolific popstar, has just unleashed Unapologetic - her seventh album in seven years. Despite being recorded in between a heavy promotional schedule and only being completed a matter of weeks ago, Unapologetic is easily one of Rihanna’s most forward-sounding and challenging albums to date. Managing to be simultaneously cocky yet vulnerable, both raunchy and subdued, Unapologetic seems like a true representation of Rihanna herself. This is easily her strongest effort since Rated R.
Lead single, ‘Diamonds’, is surprisingly a grower. It was a characteristically ballsy move for the reigning ‘queen of the dance floor’ to lead an album campaign with a marching mid-tempo number. However, once the initial surprise had worn off, the track grows on you steadily – even if you do come to the realisation that she is merely doing a karaoke cover of a Sia song.
Album track ‘Numb’ is a drugged-out, mid-tempo number, with a brilliant snake-charmer style Eastern loop. The hypnotic chant of ‘I’m going numb’ is broken by a typically tongue-in-cheek verse from Eminem: ‘I’m the butt police and I’m staring at your rear-rear-rear’. ‘Jump’ is the stand-out up-tempo on Unapologetic. Lifted more by a spectacular choice of song to sample than a song in itself, ‘Jump’ is built around a chorus lifted from Ginuwine’s classic 90s hit, ‘Pony’, and a dubstep breakdown. It’s unfortunate that no one was too concerned with writing an actual song around this, but Rihanna’s sex kitten snarl is enough to carry the track itself. Production, here, is care of UK dubstep duo Chase & Status, who have served Rihanna the past three years. After all, no popstar embraced the genre quite so fully as she.
Elsewhere, ‘Right Now’ is a Guetta-lite dance number, and a routine exercise in cliché box ticking. Designed to be the one ‘safe’ hit to ensure, even if the rest of the campaign goes belly-up, Rihanna will still be played on every dance floor; however, it couldn’t be any duller. In stark contrast, the Justin Parker penned ‘Stay’ is the album’s crowning glory. A refreshingly simple piano ballad, this may be Rihanna’s finest vocal performance to date. Startlingly stripped-back for a Rihanna track, ‘Stay’ features guest vocals from rising-star Mikky Ekko, who delivers close-to-the-bone lines like, ‘it’s not much of a life you’re living’.
The much discussed ‘Nobody’s Business’ may be the worst duet choice ever made in the history of pop. It’s thoroughly uncomfortable to listen to Rihanna and the man who violently beat and threatened to kill her coo lines like, ‘could we become love’s persona’ at one another. Even more offensive than Brown’s Poundland Michael Jackson is the repeated delivery of ‘nobody’s bidnith’. One decent hook and a helping of ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ come nowhere near to saving this one.
Right after she’s finished singing with Brown, Rihanna seemingly strips back the bravado and admits to being lost and unsure. ‘Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary’ matches Rated R for its heartfelt poignancy. It seems to be no accident that the two tracks were put together. ‘You took the best years of my life / Felt like love struck me in the night / I pray that love don’t strike twice’, she sings on ‘Love Without Tragedy’, as she romanticizes their demise like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. The track soon segues in to ‘Mother Mary’. Here she admits, ‘Mother Mary, I swear I want to change,’ but she doesn’t change. Directionless, she now worryingly repeats, ‘as long as we got each other / I’m prepared to die in the moment’. The bonus track, ‘Half Of Me’, is a hidden treasure that has been cruelly omitted from the main album. Penned by Emeli Sandé, Rihanna undercuts the boasting of the album’s opening numbers; the fearless attitude and topless Instagram pictures are ‘just the half of it’. It’s a powerful brush-off to her critics: ‘you’re entitled to your own opinion / sit and shake your head at my decision’.
Rihanna is a challenging popstar, but that’s all part of what makes her brilliant at her job. She’s working with Chris Brown, but acknowledges ‘your love hit me to the core / I was flying til you knocked me to the floor’. We only see ‘the half of it’, but all she sees is ‘dollar signs’. She can cockily strut her way through the rockstar boasts of ‘Phresh Out the Runway’, while at once being distinctly unsure. Deep down, Rihanna is a good girl who stumbles into bad situations, which makes for an engrossing, if occasionally disturbing, listen.
Go Get It: ‘Jump’ / ‘Stay’
Forget It: ‘Nobody’s Business’