On Rihanna‘s Unapologetic, which hit retailers November 19, there are only two references to how ubiquitous she’s become: First, on “Mother Mary,” she sings, “Never thought this many people would even know my name”; then, in the stunningly gorgeous bonus track “Half of Me,” the Barbados native sings a line that goes one step further — “You saw me on the television.” Maybe it was even her interview with Oprah Winfrey. But those are the only acknowledgments of how popular Rihanna is, how her pop stardom coupled with her paparazzi-documented interactions with ex-boyfriend Chris Brown have made her a tabloid fixture and a global celebrity. In both of them, she sounds wounded.
Rihanna has cast herself in the past as a larger-than-life figure — louder, raunchier, “the essence of Fuck.” But in Unapologetic, she navigates through some of pop’s loudest permutations while refusing to fake a smile, much less a smoldering gaze. It feels like an apt reflection of the Rihanna we’ve seen in interviews, maybe for the first time in her career.
At first listen, Unapologetic feels a series of pop-at-the moment cash grabs: In her version of rap posturing, the Mike Will Made It-produced “Pour It Up,” Rihanna crows of her celebrity-earned assets (“Who cares how you haters feel? Call Jay up and close the deal”) as if she’s studied 2 Chainz‘s melodies. In highlight “Right Now,” Rihanna takes turns with David Guetta in building neon-tinted momentum, between her singing and his churning bass line. And in “Jump,” she lifts the chorus from Ginuwine‘s seductive “Pony” while navigating through these landmines of bass drops. As unlisted guest Kanye West proclaims, “It’s the rise and the fall! It’s the rise and the fall!” — and it really is.
That mode of smashin’ and stuntin’ and swaggin’ should be familiar to even the most casual pop listener. This time, however, Rihanna isn’t leading the party — she’s singing as if she’s entered a venue filled with everyone but the one person she wants most. In “Jump,” she sounds sullen because she’s spotted the man she once had, but he’s with other girls. And, despite what Future‘s warbling may otherwise convey, “Loveeeee Song” is all about self-consciousness, with the eerie refrain, “I don’t want to give you the wrong impression.” Unapologetic‘s one moment of pure bliss is also its biggest talking point: “Nobody’s Business,” in which Chris Brown joins Rihanna in a duet seemingly inspired by Michael Jackson‘s earliest hits — Breezy’s comfort zone. Rihanna laps up every syllable like a kitten to milk, even though her own chorus coincidentally recalls that of Billie Holiday‘s classic, devastating song about domestic abuse.
It’s difficult to hear Unapologetic‘s songs of heartbreak without allowing the paparazzi-supplied details to fill in some of its blanks, although some leave a bit too much open to interpretation. “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary” casts out the album’s most heartbreaking line — “I’m prepared to die at the moment” — but puts it in a context that doesn’t explain enough. It’s especially incomplete compared to the succinct-but-sweet reggaeton number “No Love Allowed,” whose backbeats inspire hip-swaying before her story starts to unfold: “I was fine until you knocked me to the floor.”
When Rihanna sings about people knowing her name, she’s singing about it the same way Drake did in Take Care — as though her incredibly public profile, coupled with the expectations she faces as a pop star, is her cross to bear. Now, more than ever, Rihanna can sing about loss and isolation with absolute conviction, within the parameters that she’s been given — bass slap or otherwise. Unapologetic may be hard to hear, and it may be imperfect, but it’s also Rihanna at her most convincing yet.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: While “Diamonds” definitely set the tone for Unapologetic, “Right Now” would be a fast gainer at radio.
Best Listened To: At a club, with the bass turned all the way up.
Idolator Rating: 4/5
— Christina Lee