Only four years after the singer Rihanna broke through with her magnetic hit “Umbrella,” the brand Rihanna has firmly established itself. The brand has quarterly deadlines to hit, profit margins to tally, employs highly skilled professionals to have meetings on the comings and goings of one of the world’s preeminent pop stars. And when the seductress from Barbados has a fresh product to launch, as she does with her new album “Unapologetic,” the machine runs in overdrive.
Were all this effort in service of a new fast-food burger launch – “Unapologetic” is the aural equivalent -- the pitch might read, “More defiant, now featuring dubstep!” Which is to say, while the new Rihanna record may be at times sonically exciting, what resides beneath the new bass-heavy, Skrillex-inspired music is still a fast-food burger, one with a lot of extra sauce and some very disturbing ingredients.
Said trouble arrives within “Nobody’s Business,” a duet between pop singers Rihanna and her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, and anyone who’s been following their tempestuous relationship – it got violent the night before the 2009 Grammy Awards -- can fill in the blanks.
A love song, “Nobody’s Business” is like a sad inversion of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Instead of singing about connection, true love and wanting to shout it to the world, the song features a convicted abuser and the woman he assaulted asking everyone to shut up and leave them alone.
She and Brown sing these words as a duet, which negates their entire argument; it feels like a pose that only invites a new round of media attention, something that both had to understand when they were singing it in the studio. It’s a little sickening, because for the first time since the incident, her addressing the complicated issue feels not like a defense of love but a marketing maneuver, a way of turning a negative into a positive.
That she follows “Nobody’s Business” with “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary” is even more confusing. After just informing her listeners that there’s nothing more to say, she seems to dredge up that fateful night in the song’s opening verse. “Who knew the course of this one drive / injured us fatally / You took the best years of my life / I took the best years of your life.” Then she goes further: “Felt like love struck me in the night / I prayed that love don’t strike twice.”
It’s tough to stomach, hearing her describe being struck by what she calls love; its usage mirrors the refrain of the Crystals’ 1962 anachronism “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).”
Granted, a contrary argument can be made that Rihanna is merely shining light on the darkness, which is one responsibility of an artist. By exploring love’s many conflicting emotions – some of which can indeed be dangerous – she’s providing necessary air.
That argument, though, assumes we’re talking about art here, and not commerce. Another nausea-inducing track, “Pour It Up,” suggests that the latter is the main goal of “Unapologetic.” The opening line -- “Throw it up, watch it all fall out” -- seems like an ode to getting sick, in fact, until it becomes clear that Rihanna is singing about money, strip clubs, doing shots of tequila and “making it rain” with bills.
These lyrical turns poison her seventh studio album, a title whose meaning reeks of defensiveness instead of defiance, even while musically, Rihanna has evolved into one of the more forward-thinking pop divas. She’s gone all-in on dubstep, the bass-heavy subgenre featuring wobbly synthetic noises and big, noisy bass-drops.
Half the record, in fact, features hints of dubstep. Others draw on the “chopped and screwed” sounds of Houston and good old-fashioned dance pop. Featuring slow, down-pitched snares and a crawling momentum, the most notable of these, “Numb,” is a duet with rapper Eminem, who’s repaying Rihanna for the “Love the Way You Lie” chorus that revived his career.
But this is not that, and the following lyric should explain why. After becoming a metaphorical cop in “Numb,” Eminem describes himself like this: “I’m the siren that you hear / I’m the butt police, and I’m looking at your rear, rear, rear.”
Eminem, one of the greatest rappers in the genre’s history, wrote that line. Rihanna can be as unapologetic as she feels she needs to be, and can support Brown all she wants. But when she starts dragging down Eminem, somebody needs to atone.