Friday, 7 October 2016

RIHANNA: Unapologetic (2012)

Rihanna's last album until this year's AntiUnapologetic also marks the end of her series of annual releases.

The album opens with 'Phresh Out The Runway'. It's a bit of a mess, sounding like a new jack swing track mashed together with dubstep and Rihanna's occasional outbursts on top. Frankly, I could not wait for it to end.

The next track is the big hit 'Diamonds'. It's s a really good track, with a more uplifting lyrical bent that marks a break from the toxic romance formula she's used previously. It's a mystery why Rihanna didn't just open the album with this one. 'Diamonds' also benefits from excellent production -- its heavy electronica, but it is used effectively to underscore Rihanna's voice. This is the kind of treatment they should have applied to 'We Found Love'.

'Numb' is cut from the same cloth as the opening track, with Rihanna's repetitive verses on top of a repetitive, vaguely tuneless beat. It briefly picks up at the climax, with a hilarious rap from Eminem, but it's too little, too late. Given their shared love of dirty wordplay, it's surprising they have not collaborated on a track like Talk That Talk's 'Cockiness (I Love It)'.

'Power It Up' is a little bit better, but it never powers up. Compared with 'Diamonds', most of the tracks on this album feel lethargic and aimless.

'Loveeeeeee Song' is another duet, this time with rapper Future. It is a considerable step up from 'Numb', because it is actually a duet, with Future and Rihanna trading verses about romantic expectations and realities. It's quite melancholy, although not as memorable as it could be.

'Jump' is not a cover of the Van Halen song. Maybe it's because of how lackadaisical the dance numbers have been up until this point, but I enjoyed this track quite a bit. It's nowhere near the level of similar tracks on Loud or Good Girl Gone Bad but it's a nice injection of energy, with a good, passive-aggressive vocal from Rihanna and a strong beat.

'Right Now' features uber-producer David Guetta, and repeats all the signatures of his style -- that rapid escalation of feedback that starts every track, the loops and weird, siren-like beats are all present and correct. Guetta's style is more sympathetic to Rihanna's voice than Calvin Harris, but there are still points where it feels like two seperate songs fighting for attention.

'What Now' is your typical Rihanna ballad of heartbreak and despair, with a heavier beat than usual and a welcome dose of wailing guitar. It's an  okay track, but pales in comparison with the track that follows.

'Stay' features a lot of piano and a duet with Mikky Ekko. More stripped down than previous tracks on the album, it is another ballad about trying to find love, but its sentiment feels more believable than previous tracks, probably because of the more developed lyrics and the use of real instruments instead of synths. It's not as instantly catchy as 'Diamonds', but it has its own understated charm. Thankfully, it was released as a single, so clearly Rihanna knew she had something good.

Depending on how you feel about their previous history, 'Nobody's Business', a duet with Rihanna's on-off abusive boyfriend Chris Brown might turn you off. I thought I was going to hate it, but goddammit this track is great. It's a funky disco track with a monster hook that is impossible to resist. Considering they broke up a few months after the album's release, the lyrics are unintentionally hilarious, as Rihanna and Brown declare their eternal love, and tell everyone to bug off.

'Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary' clocks in at nearly seven minutes, split into two distinct halves -- the first focuses on Rihanna's usual subject of tainted love, before shifting into slower, more introspective  and spiritual territory. It's an interesting track, with the lyrics conveying a certain level of despair as the author prays for some kind of redemption.

'Get It Over With' includes a cliche of post-Rated R Rihanna that I've grown to love: the judicious dropping of the F Bomb during a ballad. She's done it a few times, and considering how many of her songs revolve around bad relationships, it makes sense to throw in some adjectives which really convey how she feels. In the end, it gives songs like this some guts, and makes them feel a little more relatable.

'No Love Allowed' is a fun shift from the romantic despair that overwhelms the rest of the album. In contrast, here the singer sounds like she's just given up. Despite the bleakness of its lyrics, when combined with the electronic reggae backing track, it takes on an oddly comic tone which stands in stark contrast to the more earnest tracks of the album. It's another song about being dumped by a sociopathic lover, but the production and arrangement save it from sounding too much like a xerox of other Rihanna songs. However, by the time it's over, you get the feeling she should sing about something else.

'Lost In Paradise' closes the album. It's a return to the electronic BS of 'Phresh Out The Runway', although Rihanna actually gets to sing more than one verse.

'Half Of Me' is a bonus track from the deluxe edition. It makes for a better finale to the album, if only because -- unlike most of the songs -- it sounds like they spent some time putting it together. It's not great, but it's agreeable enough, and features another great deployment of the F-bomb. The lyrics are a callback to 'Question Existing' from Good Girl Gone Bad, centred around a celebrity telling her audience that what the crazy stuff they hear about and see her do is not the sum total of her personality. Considering the title of the album, it's ironic how apologetic it sounds.

This album hit home for me a theory that had bubbling through these reviews since Loud. All of Rihanna's albums of the 2010s to this point have been a bit hit-and-miss, mixing strong singles with a lot of filler. I blame the annual release date. With such time constraints, it's no wonder most of the music comes off as a bit bland and half-baked.

What's obvious is that there is greatness scattered throughout these albums. If you took the hits from Loud, Talk That Talk and Unapologetic, you end with enough tracks for one really strong record that could stand toe to toe with Good Girl Gone Bad.

It's a good thing that Rihanna took a break after this album -- if she kept up this pace, the law of diminishing returns would have probably hurt her in the long run.

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