Album: Rihanna – “Unapologetic” (2012)

Seems everyone has an opinion on Rihanna, and her run of monster hit albums has inevitable got everyone sharpening their knives. This album seems to have barely got a look in musically, and many as simply dismissing it on account of her relationship with Chris Brown. People love a high horse, but they seem to be equating liking this album to condoning domestic abuse, which is total nonsense.

Rihanna UnapologeticI don’t know, I’m just tired of that being the only thing that seems to matter when it comes to Rihanna. Maybe that’s just the internet for you, as it hardly looks to have dented her appeal worldwide. And why would it? Chris Brown was the one that hit her, and he’s doing just fine sales-wise. So really it comes down to whether or you are willing to ignore an artist you previously liked because they have reconciled with someone who hit her 3 years ago. Why should I be angry at her for moving on? It didn’t happen to me.

Whichever side of the fence you end up on, Rihanna shows no signs of becoming a lesser force on the world stage, and indeed this album indicates that her patience is wearing thin with the abuse she’s been getting about her relationship. Sure, she doesn’t do herself any favours with some of the references in the lyrics – though didn’t people rather like “S&M” less than 2 years ago? Just saying.

She’s moved on from the clubby pop hits of “Loud”, the clubby “Loud” off-cuts of “Talk that talk”, and is making her way back to “Rated R” territory. Lots of adult themes, dark synthy productions, and really just a semi-return to urban. She’s not stupid enough to leave it hit-free, and with “Diamonds” becoming one of her biggest hits, she still has a Guetta track up her sleeve, and if she’s feeling provocative her catchiest pop hit is a duet with… Chris Brown. As awful a personality he seems to be, musically he’s not doing too badly this year, so am I just supposed to ignore that? People are always gritting their teeth and liking songs by awful personalities, how do you think Jessie J sells records?

07 Phresh out the runway – Some hard synth-urban noise to kick off. She actually sounds like Chris Brown doesn’t she? Reminds me of his “I can transform ya”. Well this stuff never really did much for me, but I somehow find it quite listenable. Hang on, Guetta co-produced? Not as generic as I thought! No but I do have a lot of time for him, just not his usual. Yeah it’s a striking opener but not quite my thing.

09 Diamonds – Now against the backdrop of all the Chris Brown fallout, the internet gays still seemed to lose their shit for this one. Written by songwriter of the moment Sia, it’s a strange mid-tempo to kick off an album. Different to her dancefloor flagship singles though, so it’s a nice change. I really like it, but I don’t think I’ll ever think of it as one of her best. The chorus just sort of plods along, and I don’t really like that “shine bright like a diamond” hook. It does develop nicely with the layers of synths and so-on, but it’s just not a max track.

07 Numb – Oh great, Eminem. Just what I need! That was sarcasm incidentally, I realise you probably don’t know me very well. I actually quite like this unsettling sound effect thing that they use here, it’s a common feature in this album. Very claustrophobic and ooky. The pitch-altered vocals just have something about them, this song’s a bit like a tuneful Minaj song. It’s even got a reasonable chorus. Eminem is as caustic as ever, but hey at least it’s not Lil Wayne. “I’m the butt police and I’m looking at your REAR REAR REAR!” … hmm. Nothing special but it’s alright.

07 Pour it up – She’s really going for the swaggering urban sound isn’t she? A bleak, dark background again, the album has at least got a consistent sound, instead of the hotchpotch of styles in “Talk that talk”. She’s certainly unapologetic, singing about how it doesn’t matter what the haters do to her, she’s still rich and successful. OK not very endearing but this is exactly what male urban artists have been doing for years, this is just more listenable. The delivery is monotone but the track doesn’t demand much singing. There’s no reason why I find this so easy to listen to, but here we are.

08 Loveeeee song – How many e’s? Oh never mind. A slow jam, yippee! More distorted vocals from guest rapper Future, it’s quite nice really. As far as slow jamz go, it’s quite good. Subtle synthy production, laid-back backing vocals contrasting well for Rihanna’s vocals. Not too taxing, and God knows this album is sounding a bit light on hits at the moment, but I’m rather enjoying it.

09 Jump – More dramatic and dark stuff, but a lot more bite to it. That momentum-gathering synthy swell at the start really sounds great. Rihanna’s after some lovin and doesn’t care who knows it. That chorus is delivered in a pretty deadpan fashion, but my God does it build well. That skipping industrial synthy crash is just the right side of noise, reminds me of Bjork’s better gambles. Just every bit of this doesn’t sound special on its own, but together really works surprisingly well.

09 Right Now – Who needs a radio hit? Paging Guetta! Repetitive it might be, but it’s not quite your normal “I gotta feeling” Guetta, lots of distorted synths and trancey phrases, it’s right up my alley. The chorus is simple as a nursery rhyme but it’s really catchy without compromising the sound of the album. After all, “Phresh off the runway” had Guetta’s hand on it, but I was none the wiser. I guess they are keeping this in reserve in case their plans for more unorthodox single choices don’t pay off.

07 What now – Ballad comedown time, and some nice simple piano to start us off. It’s not all got to be dark urban sounds, and Rihanna tries to mainstream a bit. It feels like a long while since “Diamonds”, so this works well. A bit of a beefier chorus once it gets going, not a single really, but I like the childish tone to her voice as she rapid-fires through the lyrics. Not life-changing but it’s better than “California King Bed”.

08 Stay – Keeping on the ballad trail, she performed this on yesterday’s X-Factor final. Not one to get the party started (she did that shortly after), but it’s lined up as the second single. I keep waiting for the catch, when does the big beat kick in? But no, she’s playing it straight with a gentle ballad, duetting with Mikky Ekko, who I can’t seem to find any info on. I’d say this wasn’t a radio hit, but after a year of Adele and Emeli Sande, who knows? I can hear commerical radio liking it at the very least. An unexpected choice of single, but might show that she’s not just doomed to wheeling out dancefloor anthems to pay the bills.

10 Nobody’s business – So here’s the Chris Brown duet, and to many people’s chagrin it’s one of the catchiest things on here. Very 90s RnB with that awesome soft dance beat, almost a bit disco. It’s really a superstar duet and the standout track for a single, I wonder if they will hold their nerve. After all, she’s “Unapologetic”, and it’s almost a battle cry to her detractors, if they are in love, who’s business is it to interfere? I really like this, and the strange mid-sentence back-and-forth segments. It’s screaming out as a hit, but will Rihanna (and the label) pull the pin on this one?

10 Love without tragedy / Mother Mary – I don’t know why these are stuck together, but it’s one of the more interesting audio experiences on the album. That haunting electric guitar riff makes it, I think. In the first half, Rihanna ponders whether she’ll ever have a normal love life, one must presume it’s about Chris. For such a megastar with such a burning issue at the moment, it’s a captivating moment, whether or not it’s her personal feelings is another question. After this, the riff is flipped on its head, and she goes into a sort of confessional, again reflecting on her very unusual situation. That riff just gets me every time! She seems resigned to not finding her love without tragedy, I wonder what we will think about this period in her career in 5 years time. An odd moment, a disarmingly personal angle to the story.

06 Get it over with – A duet with … who? I can’t tell who’s backing the vocals here. A laid-back slow jam again, but it just meanders around, it feels more like an interlude. She’s decided the end of the relationship has arrived, and just wants the guy to do the deed. We don’t really get our closure here, or much change to the soundscape. I didn’t really get into this one.

07 No love allowed – Is this the natural successor to “Man Down” or something? A cheeky-sounding beat to it, but I’m not sure what she’s doing. Sounds like she’s singing about an abusive relationship, is this more Brown-inspired stuff? You have to wonder what he’s thinking about this to-and-fro. Otherwise it’s a rather oddly-pitched song given her situation, is she just having a joke? It’s no “Man down” but it’s a reminder that the old Rihanna is in there somewhere. I just leave a little confused by the end.

08 Lost in paradise – A bit of tempo to finish off, as Labrinth weighs in as yet another superstar producer (at least in the UK), with Stargate having some input too. It’s another soundclash of a song, but it’s melodic and full of energy. Is that guy saying “bitch-slap”?? Probably not. She’s downhearted again, and seemingly making more poor life choices, but it’s a decent curtain-call for an interesting album.

Given her towering media profile at the moment, there was bound to be a point when she was going to get some of her issues off her chest (and more than that, judging by the cover art). She’s defiantly answering back to her critics, going back to a harder sound we hadn’t really seen since “Rated R”, though not compromising on listenability. Lyrically there are titilating references to her relationship with Chris Brown all over it, to the point where the contradictory messages leave me more confused than ever about what’s going on. But the big duet seems to straighten things out a bit, and produces perhaps her most potent hit for a long while.

What her public perception is going to be like at the end of this campaign is anyone’s guess, but “Unapologetic” is already a hit, so I’m very interested to see what risks will be taken between now and then.

Keepers for the iPod: Diamonds, Loveeee song, Jump, Right now, Stay, Nobody’s business, Love without tragedy / Mother Mary, Lost in paradise

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