Amazing as it seems, Rihanna’s new Unapologetic is the 24-year-old singer’s seventh studio album since her 2005 debut, Music of the Sun. Janet Jackson took 19 years from her self-titled first album to her seventh (All for You); Madonna took 15 years to reach her seventh, Ray of Light. The growth those older pop stars showed going from dewy upstarts to seasoned stadium performers on their albums isn’t quite as evident for Rihanna on Unapologetic, but overall, the album is one of her most solid.
One of the first noticable things about Ri-Ri’s latest set is its speed. Mid-tempo tracks like her lead single “Diamonds,” “Numb” (featuring Eminem) and “Pour It Up” sound like they were recorded under the influence of barbituates. The songs themselves are anything but downers, but anthemic uptempo tracks have long become a signature sound for Rihanna. For the most part, Unapologetic comes a lot slower. When a dance track like “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary” comes in—with its lyrical allusions to Marilyn Monroe and James Dean—it almost seems like an intrusion.
Rihanna’s “navy” of hardcore fans will recognize and rejoice in the usual Bahan inflections that crop up in “No Love Allowed” and “Loveeeeeee Song,” as well as the habitual chopped-and-screwed videogame dubstep sound effects in tracks like “What Now” and “Jump.” Rihanna has long shared less in common with an R&B star like Mary J. Blige than a veteran pop-rocker like Pat Benatar. She’s just as likely to collaborate with Coldplay as Kanye West, and a couple of Unapologetic tracks (coincidentally?) share titles with rock songs: “Jump” (Van Halen), “Numb” (U2). Known for guitar-heavy hits like “Rockstar 101,” Rihanna effortlessly shreds pop-rock-R&B genres, even as she struts worldwide arenas in concert with as much bad-girl sass as Courtney Love.
Unapologetic kicks off with the head-nodder “Phresh Out the Runway” before sliding into downtempo mode on “Diamonds” and staying there for most of the 15-track album. Rihanna keeps her signature hedonism front and center. “Pour It Up,” for instance, flaunts the stripclub imagery of raining dollar bills. By the time things eventually pick up re: beats per minute, listeners may feel guilty for getting into the groove; the song to kick things in gear is “Nobody’s Business,” the (admittedly excellent) duet with Rihanna’s allegedly on-again, off-again lover, Chris Brown.
“You’ll always be my boy,” she sings, characteristically unapologetic about crooning with the perpetrator of her infamous domestic violence incident of 2009. “Nobody’s Business” is a breezy, Michael Jacksonesque R&B song that deserves to be a hit single on musical merit alone. Whether the controversial politics of her duet partner will cloud the issue remains to be seen.
Power ballads like “Half of Me” and “Stay” crop up on Unapologetic but fail to stick to the ribs. “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary” is the album’s longest, most ambitious track at seven minutes long. “Tomorrow ain’t promised/Live in the moment,” she sings, making it clear she’s “prepared to die in the moment. What’s love without tragedy?” she asks, hammering her point home on a song that goes gradually darker and more melancholy with time.
Having recently completed her 777 Tour—performing a whirlwind seven concerts in seven days in seven cities around the world—Rihanna has firmly cemented her pop icon status, if there were still any doubters out there. Singers’ true audiences are never more obvious than during their live concert performances. Trannies with high cleavage, moms taking teenage girls by the hand, twentysomethings rocking Rihanna’s latest haircut, men on dates with girlfriends or each other: venues around the globe were packed with them all.
Arguments against the cotton candy aspect of Rihanna’s brand of spectacle are ancient: “If pop singers don’t play any instruments, and can’t even sing very well, then what are they selling really?” The age-old answer: entertainment. The Caribbean lilt of Barbados-born Rihanna’s voice lends it distinction, but her singing chops on Unapologetic are clearly no stronger than Madonna, Janet, et al.
Ri-Ri’s shows generally feature feathered stilt men, a pink army tank, hydraulic platforms, aerial acrobatic dancers, sliding catwalks and multiple costume changes, which all root Rihanna in the pop tradition of what Ed Sullivan used to call the “really big show.” Madonna, Michael and Janet Jackson arguably did it best; Beyoncé, Pink and Britney Spears carry the torch nowadays, and Rihanna is right there with them. Carpe diem, furthermuckers.