Rihanna’s giving folks a lot of reasons not to like her. Well, I shouldn’t speak for everyone. She’s giving me a lot of reasons to not like her. Whether it’s her increasing reliance on EDM, her reunion with Chris Brown, or the almost-desperate flaunting of her body, a singer that I’d developed a pretty decent amount of respect for dropped onto my shit list. Hard.
I doubt Rihanna gives a fuck about me, or anyone who might feel the same way I do. After all, her latest album is entitled Unapologetic. It features quite a few songs that fall into the EDM category, she’s topless on the album cover, and it features a duet with the aforementioned Chris Brown. A recipe for disaster, one might say. Or at least, it’s what I said before I listened to the entire album.
Truth is, Unapologetic isn’t bad. There is a handful of crappy songs. There is also a handful of really good songs (proof that Rih-Rih is pretty much at the mercy of her songwriters.) The duet with Chris Brown might be the most enjoyable thing I’ve heard from the guy in years. While I wouldn’t run out and proclaim Unapologetic to be one of the year’s best albums, or even in the top tier of Rihanna albums, it isn’t bad.
My biggest problem with the album is that a handful of its’ songs (particularly the ones that start the album) seem to forsake melody for…noise. “Phresh Out The Runway” and “Numb” (which features a technically amazing but phoning-it-in-lyrically Eminem) might sound great on a dance floor or as the musical bed for some TV show, but they don’t sound great as music that you’d spend money on to sit and listen to in the privacy of your home. Rihanna’s unique dialect gives any song she’s on a fair amount of flavor, but the busy-ness of the production manages to render her almost anonymous. And while her iciness has become something of a trademark, she sounds completely uninspired on these tracks. As Carletta mentioned during our most recent podcast, these songs kinda sound like they were left on the studio floor after the recording of her last album, Talk That Talk.
If not for the elegant first single, “Diamonds,” the entire first third of Unapologetic would be straight up trash. Fortunately, things start to turn around with the Future duet “Love Song” (the word “love” actually has about 10 more Es in the title, but I’m too old for that shit) and the Ginuwine-interpolating “Jump.” The latter song finds Rihanna in familiar sexpot/potty mouth mode, and while I think she’s just as good when not being overtly explicit (there’s a lot to be said for mystery and subtlety,) it’s one of the album’s highlights.
Oh yeah, there’s “Nobody’s Business.” Based on a bouncy dance/pop groove and a slight derivation of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” Rihanna and her ex-tormentor deliver a reasonably fun duet. It’s hard for me to enjoy anything Chris Brown-related just because he seems like a major league asshole, so the fact that I even like this song must mean that it’s pretty damn good. Even if Chris is (as usual) Auto-Tuned to within an inch of his life.
It’s worth noting that “Business” is book-ended by two songs that (if you like reading into stuff like this) could also be statements about the Rihanna/Brown relationship. “Stay” and “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary” are nowhere near as light as the song in between them, and (again, if you like reading into stuff like this) reveal that there’s still some lingering baggage from that particular coupling. There’s a certain “I’m watching a car wreck” feel that I get upon listening to these songs, almost a discomfort of sorts. But they’re compelling as all hell, and it’s worth noting that Rihanna gets a co-writing credit on “Business,” “Tragedy/Mother Mary,” and most of the album’s best tracks. She might want to take that hint.
At the end of the day, I’m conflicted. There are songs here that rank among Rihanna’s best, and there are quite a few dogs here as well. Additionally, the subtext of Rihanna’s very public life means that you can’t take many of these songs as just…well, songs. It’s like you’re looking for clues. This can be good, but it can also detract from the enjoyment of certain songs.
How much you like Unapologetic will depend on a lot of things…your comfort level with Skrillex-style bleeps and bloops, your comfort level with Chris Brown (both as a featured artist and as a likely muse) and whether you view Rihanna as a runaway train or as a strong woman who doesn’t give a shit what you think. Even when it isn’t good, it’s interesting. I can say that much. You’ve got to at least appreciate a pop star whose music and persona invites this much thought.