Rihanna is on the cover of the new GQ wearing only a leather jacket, her modesty barely protected. “You’re going out dressed like that?” is something no one ever says to her. Distracted by her more obvious assets, you are excused for failing to notice her conflicted lips – the bottom one quivers, but the upper one is stiff. Or at least that’s how I see it on her new album.
Unapologetic, the pop superstar’s seventh album in that many years, mixes vulnerability and anxiety with a strong sense of defiance. The title itself is a bold pre-emptive declaration to critics. The island girl is a shrewd one – what made you think otherwise?
“You see me, you like me, huh?” is an absolutely rhetorical question from Phresh Out the Runway, an opening track marked by more than idiosyncratic spelling and dubious grammar. It is a rubbery, hip-slung banger about the high life. You see her, you like her? Some people do like her this way: hard, dance-floor-strut stuff. There’s less of that here than on previous records. Does RiRi care? She does not. “Un-a-pol-o-getic” – get with the program.
Perhaps there’s a little too much of yesterday’s dub-step to the record. Undeniably there are a few too many dull, inessential songs. It is not her concern. Rihanna is a singles seller; the album is just for show and marketing.
As for those singles, the first one, Diamonds, is a “dazzler,” as they say in the gemstone trade. It is the kind of cinematic ballad on which Lana Del Rey has “built” a “career.” Indeed, when Rihanna sings about shooting stars shining bright, she could be addressing Del Rey directly.
Diamonds, by the way, are more than just pretty things to look at. The word’s etymology involves adámas, which is Greek for “unbreakable.” Did you see what Rihanna did there?
Much attention has already been given to the so-so disco of Nobody’s Business (pronounced “bidness” by the duettists Rihanna and an MJ-inspired Chris Brown). Here we have an infamous pair of (former) lovers declaring their affection for each other in a highly public manner – a platinum-selling album – and yet they insist their romance is none of anyone’s concern. Why don’t you two just rent a billboard already? And really, the court-appointed probation officer is positive that the goings-on between Brown and the volatile crooner’s onetime assault victim are his business, if no one else’s.
Speaking of restraining orders, the charismatic dub reggae of No Love Allowed is something very interesting. Rihanna calls 911 and makes accusations of murder – “like a bullet, your love hit me to the core; I was flying till you knocked me to the floor.” We’ll just leave it that, because, as previously established, what goes on between two consenting celebrities is none of our affair.
On the ballad side, if the stark, affecting piano piece Stay doesn’t move you, then there is no pleasing you. A duet with Mikky Ekko is as a beautiful thing ever offered by the world’s most famous Barbadian. “Funny, you’re the broken one, but I’m the only one who needed saving,” the harmony goes.
There’s not a lot of excitement to this record, but there are layers. And if it isn’t ground-breaking or Rihanna’s best, there are enough standout tracks to make the thing worthwhile. All in all, no apologies given; none required.
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