55.06 min • Def Jam • November 19, 2012
Not every artist can release one album a year – although, when you’re having them written for you, it’s much easier to fire archetypal pop songs at people. Pop starlet Rihanna seems to be releasing albums at an alarming rate. Maybe she’s aware how fickle celebrity is, and is trying to get as much done and make as much money as she can before she’s old news. The last time I really believed Rihanna was 2009, when she released the groundbreaking pop r’n’b album Rated R. After the success of Good Girl Gone Bad (so good they released it twice?!) RiRi was hot property, and her record label briefly gave her control to make the album she wanted, and the result was dark and dirty with an undercurrent of bassy dubstep, which at the time wasn’t quite the over-saturated commercial mess it is now. Personally begging urban dance act Chase & Status to work on the album after they turned the project down, she used their bass heavy sound as the backbone for Rated R, shaved sections out of her hair, used influences of punk & East London fashion in her style, and created pop perfection. Ever since then, it’s all felt a bit … rushed! Unapologetic is her 4th album in 4 years (her 7th to date), and despite both Loud and Talk That Talk having moments that will go down in pop history, they were much more collections of songs than albums from start to finish. The real Rihanna seemed to seep through every note of Rated R (she even co-wrote some of the songs) but since then there’s been something generic about her music, so I didn’t really hold high hopes for her latest offering.
To say I was surprised by Unapologetic is an understatement. The first half of the album, before it spirals out of control, is like Rated R part two. Relatively uncommercial, dirty and taking inspiration from the current underground hip-hop scene’s use of ambient electronica, the first 7 tracks are great.
Opener ‘Phresh Off The Runway’, co-written by go-to dance collaborator David Guetta, is a dark rave hip-hop stomp, that recalls ‘Wait Your Turn’, the opening song and first single from Rated R (at the same time as sounding a little like New York electro hip-hop chick Dev). It’s a solid opener that you hope is signalling a new direction. First single ‘Diamonds’ follows, and written by the amazing Sia Fuller (dragged into the r’n’b pop world when she worked with Christina Aguilera on several ballads for ill-fated but brilliant last album Bionic) it’s an interesting mid-tempo ballad, and Sia’s way of constructing melodies really suits Rihanna’s voice, making her otherwise bland vocal tone, which sounds dull and inoffensive on a standard pop song, sound positively interesting. It’s a mature love song, positive and upbeat lyrically, but there’s something about the melody and the vocal that is brimming with longing.
Eminem collaboration ‘Numb’, with its pounding hip-hop beat and Dancehall influenced chorus, is a drug induced stumble of a song. Ecstasy is mentioned, and the brilliant Eminem rap, one of his best in years, has several drug references in it. As a result, it all feels quite uncommercial, but essentially sounds like Rihanna and her producers have been listening to too much Etta Bond and Raf Riley (if there can ever be too much Etta Bond and Raf Riley on anyone’s iPod). ‘Power It Up’ drips with swag and dollar bills, and whilst sounding contrived, it’s nowhere near the atrocities of her last two albums.
I don’t wanna give you the wrong impression,
I need love and affection –
croons a low, distorted voice at the beginning of ‘Loveeeeeee Song’, probably my favourite on the whole album, a low tempo electronic r’n’b ballad written with and produced by US rapper Future, and it has his trademark ambient electronic feel (which seems to be all the rage at the moment, with the likes of Frank Ocean and The Weekend). It’s an interesting track, but as ever, it’s dripping with someone else’s ideas.
‘Jump’ was the track I was most excited about, as Chase & Status have produced some of my favourite Rihanna tracks to date, and sampling ‘Pony’ by Genuine, I was expecting big things. Essentially, it’s ‘Rude Boy’ with a stolen chorus and a bit of noisy dubstep. Again, it’s interestingly uncommercial, which is becoming a theme, and when compared to the fluff of her last two albums, the heavy chainsaw bass seems almost risky. Ultimately though, it’s only exciting in the world of Rihanna.
‘Right Now’, the second Guetta collaboration here, with its standard pop dance chorus, explodes in whirring electro bass and, again, feels too harsh and heavy to feature on a Rihanna album. Lyrically, it’s essentially ‘Young’ by Tulissa (but the message of either song isn’t exactly unique) and I’m sure many a school disco and teenage house party will erupt into drunken pogo-ing when the vocal-less electro noise chorus hits.
Now for the ballad section. ‘Both What Now’ and ‘Stay’ are mature, if somewhat safe, ballads that – whether autotune is involved or no – suit Rihanna’s voice. The latter, a collaboration with Mikky Ekko, a singer-songwriter who is essentially what Mika would be like if he had taken his inspiration from Bjork rather than Jake Shears and Queen, could be the best ballad Rihanna has ever put a vocal to. It should be noted that she sounds the best she’s ever sounded on this album, with a voice that aches with pain and regret. So – so far so good. I mean, it’s all lovingly stolen from other people, and doesn’t fit together as a cohesive piece of work as strongly as Rated R did, but it’s an improvement on the Top 40 jukebox feel her last two albums had. Then I get punched in the stomach …
Like most people, I was appalled by the pictures of Rihanna’s beaten face when then-boyfriend Chris Brown beat her to a pulp. So much so that I decided against publicly reviewing Brandy’s latest release (which was my most anticipated album of the year) because of his strong involvement in the writing and production of so many tracks. So, the sight of a duet with Brown called ‘Nobody’s Business’ filled me with dread. Matched with rumours of their relationship being ignited again, and after dueting on the full version of the sexually provocative ‘Birthday Cake’, originally on last album Talk That Talk, I was dreading ‘Nobody’s Business’. And from the opening lines, I knew I was right to be worried,
You’ll always be mine.
Sing it to the world,
You’ll always be my boy,
And I’ll always be your girl –
sings Rihanna over a pop disco track (that sounds almost exactly like ‘The Beat Goes On’ recorded by Madonna for her album Hard Candy) and the refrain,
Ain’t nobody’s business but mine and my baby –
which you may recognise from Michael Jacksons stomper ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, couldn’t be further from the truth. When pictures of Rihanna’s beaten face hit the papers and the courts, it ceased just being their business. Rihanna has a fan base. She is a role model for millions of young women all across the world. Singing about sex and drugs and using profanity is one thing. Indeed, even approaching domestic abuse in an artistic way is understandable and forgivable, it’s something that happens every day, but to openly go back to a violent abuser, and feed that message to your fan base through your album leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, this track coupled with the albums title made me see the rest of the album in a completely different light. It’s also, whilst being one of the album’s most commercial moments, the laziest and the most unimaginative thing on display here, and lyrically feels like regression rather than growth. The remaining tracks are handed to me as a mixed bag of emotions. ‘Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary’, quite obviously about the night of her attack, comes to the conclusion “what’s love without tragedy”, which would be a more sympathetic statement had it not followed a love song with the human embodiment of that tragedy. ‘Get It Over With’, one of my favourite things on the album, is a simple ballad, complete with distorted backing vocals and strings, Rihanna and her mystery vocalist singing,
You keep thundering, when you gonna fucking rain,
And get it over with?
The dancehall tinged ‘No Love Allowed’ contains dubious lyrics, which I will come to, closing with the Labrinth-by-numbers production of ‘Return To Paradise’. Her most personal album to date, Rihanna has co-written almost every song on this album, which makes its lyrical content, from euphoric and defiant love to pain and confusion, even more difficult to take when its so obviously about Brown.
Never before have I felt so strongly against the message of a pop record. Whilst I understand that as an artist she should be free to do whatever she wants, listening to this album feels like trying to comfort an abused friend, while she defiantly tells you it’s none of your business. How well this album will do will depend on its marketing. Just as we want to watch car-crash TV, we want car-crash celebrity, so secretly most people in this media saturated culture probably want a Chris Brown and Rihanna reunion. If that is the case, ‘Nobody’s Business’ could be the biggest track off the album, and her Diamonds World Tour will no doubt be a sell-out on the back of her previous hits alone. For me, Rihanna was a pop star I had all but given up on making a comeback as an artist … it’s just a shame that when she finally does, I don’t like what she has to say.
Singing on ‘No Love Allowed’,
This man, he’s the one that I die for…
makes me wonder – if he hits you like that again, maybe you will. But this time, I don’t know if I’ll bother to listen.