Are Rihanna albums a little pointless? If recent history has anything to say, we’re going to be bombarded with singles from her latest record, “Unapologetic,” for the next twelve months anyway. Did you know that this is Rihanna’s fourth straight year releasing an album in mid-November? If you didn’t, it’s because you encounter her music like most people: through singles and their remixes as they become popular. Because Rihanna’s songs exist independently of each other in practice, it is weirdly unnatural to find them compiled on a single disc, free of interruptions.
But even if “Unapologetic” is pointless, its individual songs mostly aren’t. While some of the album suffers from a combination of lazy, uninspiring production and a dearth of decent pop melodies, Rihanna’s experimentation with a variety of musical styles makes “Unapologetic” her most enjoyable batch of songs since 2007’s “Good Girl Gone Bad,” even if its unsettling lyrical content can detract from the music at times.
Let’s start with the bad, because “Unapologetic” definitely does. Excepting lead single and second track “Diamonds,” the album’s first five tracks are over-synthed, plodding, and most damningly, just not catchy. Put it this way: you’re not going to be furtively humming the monotonous, three-note choruses of “Numb” or “Pour It Up” in class like you did with last year’s “We Found Love” or “Where Have You Been.” Those hits had similarly trashy, synthed-up production, but they at least possessed absurdly memorable hooks.
However, the hooks start to pop up soon enough. “Jump” and “What Now” are sure to be future hits, featuring infectious choruses that make superb use of those wobbly, growling bass blasts that your teenage sister confidently terms “dubstep.” (Hi America! Please stop calling every electronic song “dubstep.” Thanks!) “What Now” works especially well because it builds tension through soft, piano-based verses and bridges; every time the massive chorus hits, you’re itching for it. On the polar opposite end of the musical spectrum, “No Love Allowed,” a refreshingly minimalist reggae jam, is carried by Rihanna’s excellent, Marley-esque vocals. It’s nice to hear Rihanna perform the occasional ballad or reggae song, because, as past ballads “Take A Bow” and “Fool In Love” prove, she certainly has more vocal chops and interpretive ability than your average dance music star.
Then there’s Chris Brown. There will be plenty written about lyrical choices, Brown, and domestic violence in relation to “Unapologetic,” but in short: yes, Rihanna sometimes uses violent metaphors, yes, she duets with Brown, and yes, these choices can make “Unapologetic” a difficult listen. When Rihanna sings lines such as “Felt like love struck me in the night
/ I prayed that love don't strike twice” and “Boy, I just wanna be in your possession,” it’s hard to focus on the music and easy to make the glaring, real-life connections to what transpired between her and Brown in the past few years. This jarring lyricism peaks during Brown and Rihanna’s duet, “Nobody’s Business,” which features an wonderfully glitzy, MJ-emulating beat co-written and co-produced by The-Dream. First off, Chris Brown should never, ever have been allowed to sing the words “Girl, let me love you and show you how special you are.” However, wait until the duo asks each other “I wonder, can we become love’s persona?” to really start squirming in your seat. If the song had featured almost anyone other than Chris Brown, “Nobody’s Business” might have been the best song on “Unapologetic,” but the song is a rare example of how context and lyrics can overshadow the music. These kinds of lyrics don’t completely derail “Unapologetic,” but they do distract and detract from the music itself.
Lyrical discomfort aside, “Unapologetic” represents a musical progression for Rihanna. Although it contains a few lingering remnants of the mindless production that’s hampered her in the past, the album is mostly enjoyable and engaging, whether Rihanna is singing reggae, disco, or that wobbly-growly bass genre. Sure, it’s going to be impossible to escape a good number of these songs for the next year, but given how solid they are, there probably won’t be too many people complaining.