The level of attention currently being given to the launch of Rihanna’s seventh studio album is entirely disproportionate. We’re hearing a lot about the incredible publicity stunt that’s jaunting from city to city, country to country with journalists and fans in tow – but there’s less being said about the actual product this whole enterprise is meant to be fuelling.
I can’t imagine that’s there’s any conspiracy at work here – it’s the kind of hyperbolic activity that tends to accompany any new release from one of the world’s biggest selling recording artists. Nevertheless, it is successfully directing attention away from the weakest set of songs that the 24 year old Barbadian has released in some time. Unapologetic comes at a career high for Rihanna when attention on her couldn’t be less intense – and yet she’s chosen to release something that will only fuel this attention and do so in a very unfortunate way.
‘Diamonds’ remains one of the album’s standouts but nothing on Unapologetic matches the magnetism that she’s crystallised so effectively before with the likes of ‘Umbrella’, ‘What’s My Name?’ or ‘We Found Love’. Both the cheekiness and occasional moments of tenderness that held 2011′s Talk That Talk together are gone, replaced by lyrical clumsiness and a vocal style that leaves her at the mercy of the record’s (many) producers. Ultimately, it just never comes together with any cohesion – it’s fragmented on almost every level. Just when a groove seems to settle into place that falls somewhere between Guetta (who guests on the record) and Skrillex-lite, we’re wrong-footed into a standout duet with Clams Casino collaborator Mikkey Ekko.
There’s no avoiding the themes that dominate the album’s final third – which kicks off with the uncomfortable conceit of a duet with Chris Brown. ‘Nobody’s Business’ strikes an amiable enough jaunt with a melodic harking back to classic MJ but it’s difficult to stomach the basic proposition of the song: asking the world to leave you alone by singing alongside the very man you want be left alone with (whatever you think of him) is a dumb illogicality. ’Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary’ follows, with Rihanna lamenting “You took the best years of my life / I took the best years of your life / Felt love struck me with a knife / I pray that love don’t strike twice.” It’s a line that immediately and uncomfortably recalls The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).
Unapologetic‘s cover art recalls a similar aesthetic to that used by The Dixie Chicks for their Entertainment Weekly photo shoot in May 2003, the Texan trio’s response to the criticism they got for a seemingly anti-Republican outburst at a live show. Try as she might, Rihanna can’t quite drum up a similar confrontational and assertive tone. It should be easier to simply appreciate Unapologetic as a semi-solid pop record but that pleasure is denied at too many turns. The sentiments of the record are consistent only in their contradiction of one another – submission, defence and too many second chances set against that (weirdly inviting) response to the prying eyes of the world.
One would like to think this is intentional, that maybe there’s a serious attempt her to explore the complicated nature of love, power and forgiveness – after all, she’s touched on similar themes in interviews before (in a Rolling Stone piece from early 2011: “[My father] got beat up by his stepdad when he was young. He has resentment toward women, because he felt like his mom never protected him, and unfortunately, my mother was the victim of that. I’m not giving him excuses. Right is right and wrong is wrong. I still blame him. But I understand the source.”) but if that is the intention, then the execution is sorely misguided.