Unapologetic is Rihanna’s seventh album in as many years, and makes for a demanding listen. The “drunk workhorse” character of the Barbadian singer, who frequented previous albums in some capacity, is absent here.
Instead of anything cheeky or fun, this set is laced with the very real presence of someone using the spectacle of pop music to inadvertently condone abuse.
The Chris Brown duet, Nobody’s Business, is inevitably the central attraction of this album. It’s a wonderfully light throwback to late-80s piano house; but its lyrics make the listener feel like an intruder. “You’ll always be the one that I wanna come home to,” Rihanna sings, marching on down the aisle, caught up in Brown’s cooing response.
It’s not new for people to write songs about abusive relationships – recorded by the likes of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, the 1922 blues standard Ain’t Nobody’s Business explicitly addresses violence against women. But it is perhaps new for songwriters to be commissioned specifically for the task.
Bold production disguises some of the bad taste – but lines like “Like a bullet your love hit me to the core / I was flying ‘til you knocked me to the floor”, from No Love Allowed, are uncomfortably balanced between true love and awkward acrimony. And the mixture of emotions across Unapologetic just doesn’t sit right.
On What Now, Rihanna takes a look in the mirror and tells us that she doesn’t know how to cry. On Jump, she preaches that she won’t be chasing her ex; perhaps the Ginuwine sample and multipack of Chase & Status bass drops inhibit her conviction.
Throughout, the context and rancour can’t be shaken – but at least there’s clarity between Rihanna’s defiance on the club tracks and the heavy sadness in the ballads.
Maybe Unapologetic is proof that we should have more faith in young audiences’ reasoned understanding. Maybe it’s a hammering of the point that pop music shouldn’t shy away from real life’s sadness. But more realistically, Unapologetic seems to position Rihanna as a human being dragged headfirst into a breakdown, and somehow surviving it.