2.5 stars (out of 4)
In celebrity annals, few things are more attention-grabbing – or degrading – than working out an abusive relationship in public.
But there's no escaping that Brown battered Rihanna in an ugly lover's spat in 2009. He pleaded guilty to felony assault and received probation. Both artists resumed their careers under a microscope, their every word parsed for hints about their relationship.
Neither performer went away, even for a brief time. Brown maintained a largely business-as-usual distance on albums that continued to sell, and Rihanna churned out annual, even more commercially successful albums and tours. The 2009 "Rated R" album found her by turns defiant, haunted and vulnerable, as personal an album as she has ever made. Subsequent releases found her burrowing deeper into effervescent dance pop, with songs that promised ecstasy on the dancefloor or in the bedroom as escape from the world outside.
With “Unapologetic,” Rihanna turns contemplative again, enlisting an army of production gurus, song massagers and hitmakers, from dance maven
Rihanna hasn’t entirely abandoned hooky, uptempo pop anthems. “Unapologetic” continues her embrace of cutting-edge,
The latter features a disappointing rap cameo from
Talk about a mixed message. Even Rihanna sounds confused. Glancing references to that "one drive" and that night ripple through the album, like an echo that will never fade. The characters in these songs linger in a limbo of mixed emotions, emotionally attracted to a lover and yet uneasy about the next step. In the stripped-bare piano ballad "Stay," Rihanna sings, "Funny, you're the broken one/But I'm the only one who needed saving."
Fans of celebrity subtext could wallow for months in the hints and allusions. Those who abhor exploitive marketing may be drawn to the songs like a bad car crash. How much of this is Rihanna and how much of it is just a soap-opera steroid, a way to pump up sales? That the question even has to be asked is disturbing.