It’s been a few years since Rihanna saturated the world with her addictive Ella-ella-ella. Seven albums in (since 2005), the Barbados-born pop starlet doesn’t so much create stand-alone works, but rather a series of single repositories. It takes more than two hands of fingers to count her number ones.
After being discovered at 16 by producer Evan Rogers, she eventually signed with Def Jam after auditioning for Jay-Z, who was seeking to build a pop empire. Rihanna’s super-stardom was engineered. There’s an army of producers and songwriters at the ready; she’s simply propped up and functions as the face of a well-oiled enterprise. Her voice really doesn’t matter; you can actually hear the ones and zeroes of the software doing its work.
It’s important to note that she takes to all this with ease and a ferocious aplomb. After all, by most anyone’s standard Rihanna is stunningly beautiful—perfectly suited for being a pop star.
In her latest, Unapologetic, Rihanna, appears to once again embrace the trials and tribulations of her well-publicized personal life. However, to make sure the public doesn’t forget the persona, the album is filled with sexual innuendo, and is careful to not stray too far away from the collective expectation of the millions who adore her and cherish her bass-heavy, dance-floor ready music.
One of the standout tracks on the album, “Jump,” is actually a lot of fun—mostly because of how ridiculous it is. The track uses the most famous line (the only famous line) from R&B singer Ginuine as its starting point: Ride it, my pony. The foundation comes from the Skrillex-inspired dub-step to make sure that everyone knows what year it is. The song packs just about every contemporary music cliché into four minutes: A sexually-tinged teasing delivery, slowed down bass for the drop, generic rap verse and even a little synth. It’s as if Spearmint Rhino commissioned it for customer appreciation night.
It’s impossible to listen to this album and not be completely distracted by the elephant in the room: "Nobody’s Business". The much talked about single, where Rihanna duets with Chris Brown, the R&B star who pummeled her before the 2009 Grammy Awards, turning her face into Salisbury steak.
Forgiveness is an admirable quality, as is redemption. And no one but Rihanna can know what’s in her heart and mind. However, when she sings, “Let’s sing it to the world/Baby give me time/ Imma be your girl/ I wanna make you mine/ And it ain’t nobody’s business,” there’s something sadly distressing in this defiant call to action. It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment of discomfort; however, the Michael Jackson imitation—including his actual voice—demonstrates the type of spit and polish that cloyingly reveals, at least one of the goals of this song. The shameless artificiality of their delivery and early 90s production seem manufactured to generate fevered interest and no doubt, another number one single.
As mentioned, there are a few songs on Unapologetic that are fun––even if silly. This seems to be the point of most of it. Take “Diamonds,” for instance. Rihanna’s accent adds a playful dimension to the otherwise banal lyrics, “Find light in the beautiful sea/ I choose to be happy/ You and I, You and I/ We’re like diamonds in the sky.” It’s slight, but because of its familiar beat and recognizable song structure, people will be singing along behind their steering wheels on their way to work.
The best––and most genuine––song on the album is the piano ballad, “Stay.” It includes a strong verse by R&B singer Mikky Ekko. Rihanna’s delivery is among the best of her career allowing the simple song plenty of space to build. When she sings, “Ohhh the reason I hold on/ Ohhh cause I need this hole gone,” it’s the most authentic moment on the album.
Sure, there is certainly enough here to satisfy Rihanna’s growing fan base: the simmering controversy of “Nobody’s Business,” and a few of-the-moment guest spots, including David Guetta, and the Real Slim Shady. However, Rihanna’s latest mostly just showcases Rihanna the brand. Unapologetic aims for the middle ground—and succeeds. [C+]
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