“Unapologetic” – Rihanna

4 stars (out of 5)

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Product DetailsSo this is Rihanna’s most diverse, sonically challenging and seemingly personal album to date, not that you would ever know it reading the acres of negative reviews and critiques it, or should I more accurately say ‘she’, has had. I understand that you can’t separate the person from the music and to do so would be potentially disastrous, especially for a pop artist, but it seems as though Rihanna’s decision to re-record with Chris Brown, as she has done here, means that everything else about this album, however good or interesting, ceases to count; “So let’s punish her even more by either completing ignoring or trashing her work” seems to be the message of some of the more supposedly ‘intelligent’, left-wing media. I of course have an opinion and yes it does make listening to the song in question here difficult as I see Brown as a particularly nasty man, we know what he’s done and how he’s subsequently portrayed himself as a victim and how America has forgiven him and it is deeply odd, but that has to be seen as a separate issue. Rihanna may be foolish and she may be promoting relationships which are not necessarily recommended for anyone (if her and Brown are in fact back together again) but how do we know what’s ‘real’ and what’s not and who said she has to be a role model? Not Rihanna to the best of my knowledge.

 For people who have actually listened to “Unapologetic” and the not the white noise going on in the background, they may be surprised. First of all there isn’t an ‘”Umbrella’” here, or an ‘”Only Girl in the World” or “We Found Love”. I’ve listened to this album many times and there are many obvious highlights (the bhangra bombast of “Jump” in particular) but there isn’t a massive, joyous pop song here like these previous monsters that become a part of life in that weird way, creating millions of different memories and feelings for people who weren’t, at the time, even necessarily conscious of it. It certainly isn’t the first single, the Sia-penned “Diamonds” which is nice enough and would have made a better Bond song than Adele going through the motions on “Skyfall” and was actually the first indicator that “Unapologetic” was going to be something more personal to Rihanna, something more substantial but not as instant and attention-grabbing as previous releases. There is something admittedly morose about this album, something insidious and creeping and its similarity to the “Rated R” album both thematically and musically would seem to confirm that it’s a world that Rihanna herself likes to inhabit. It’s a well known that after “Rated R”, which was a moody, hip hop album released soon after the incident with Brown, that there was some panic within the Rihanna ‘team’; sales indicated that the brand was maybe too limited.  Exactly a year later the trend for Rihanna releasing a new album every 12 months began with “Loud” which was shiny, dancefloor-ready, optimistic and inconsistent, the same goes for “Talk that Talk” which contained some of her most explicit lyrics but some of her most lumbering filler too.

So, “Phresh Out the Runway” tears open “Unapologetic” with a hoover sample from Joey Beltram’s “Mentasm” and is an example of the current Trap music trend which combines hip hop, rap and techno or a hard house/core (see almost everything by Azelia Banks) but the only concession to stadium dance here is the David Guetta (who else?) produced faceless “Right Now” and it is indeed horrible; bad song, badly done. “What Now” on the other hand is a bit of a revelation, starting off as a pacey piano ballad before the theatrics of the dubstep-slammed chorus and a hollering Rihanna create something that is immediate, thrilling and completely ridiculous; it’s brilliant.

“Stay” is another more traditionally performed ballad, musically and vocally, and is a smart song and a lovely performance but it’s the third ballad proper that breaks so many of the rules of a traditional pop song that it’s amazing it appears here in this format at all. At nearly 7 minutes long, “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary” changes gear abruptly around the 2 minute mark morphing into a different song completely and has a central performance from Rihanna which is both heartfelt and moving (‘I’m from the left side of an island and I can’t believe this many people know my name, Mother Mary I swear I want to change’) and reminds me of what Madonna was once trying to achieve on her career-defining “Like A Prayer” album. Rihanna is of course the closet thing we have now to the one-time Queen of MTV (they showed pop videos once upon a time you know) and all things Female Pop, both presenting new versions of themselves for each subsequent release and gradually encouraging rage and hostility within the media in conjunction with a fascination and obsession.

Two tracks here don’t have any beats at all (the mood jazz of “Get It Over With” and reggae chugging “No Love Allowed”) and “Numb” is a dark, dubby ode to something that has rendered both her and Eminem incapacitated and  would sound right at home on Grace Jones’ “Hurricane” album. There are some weaker moments but for once they’re in the minority; “Loveeeeeeeee Song” is extremely dull, “Lost in Paradise” never quite settles on a convincing melody and “Pour It Up” is morbid, macho hip hop. The aforementioned controversial duet between Rihanna and Brown, “Nobody’s Business”, is actually ok, a breezy, mid tempo Bobby Brown-ish “Two Can Play That Game” swinger.

So my advice is to try and listen to this album if you can and more than just once or twice as, surprisingly for an artist who is still considered to be disposable, Rihanna’s complex seventh album rewards best after several listens. It’s a sterling, experimental pop album that admirably refuses to follow an easy path and may well be her best, I suppose we only have to wait another 12 months to find out.

We apologise for the lack of audio links in this review; for some unknown reason, Spotify has removed the album.  If it returns, we’ll try to reinstate the links.