In the age of Twitter, the gap between pop stars’ personal lives and the music they make is more blurred than ever. Never more so than on Rihanna’s seventh album. When even the provocative cover art is daubed with hashtags, you know references to the 24-year-old’s online presence are being made. RiRi, after all, has her private life delved into in ways most people will never have to endure. But on ‘Unapologetic’ she makes it an unavoidable part of the conversation. There are bigger reasons for her being laid bare on the cover than just fun stunting.
A reaction from Rihanna to the endless tabloid concern over her “constant partying” would be enough for a few tunes, but her reunion with ex-boyfriend Chris Brown trumps that. ‘Unapologetic’ not only confirms that the rumours are true, but is a ‘fuck you’ to anyone who dares warn her off the 23-year-old after he beat her up in 2009. The singer has already reacted angrily to suggestions in the media that her actions are not those of a responsible role model. But aside from the album title, it’s there in the opening lines of gleaming lead single ‘Diamonds’: “I choose to be happy”.
Her take on the situation is tackled most brazenly on ‘Nobody’s Business’, effectively her and Brown’s ‘we’re back together’ letter sung over a swinging summer jam. This is the record’s pop centrepiece, even if Brown’s croak of “Let’s make out in this Lexus” underlines once again that there really is no accounting for taste. But while it’s a definite ‘fuck you I won’t do what you tweet me’, there’s more to ‘Unapologetic’ than that. The highlight, the gorgeous piano ballad ‘Stay’, puts a vulnerable spin on the Brown situation, repeating another theme of the album – failing to resist true love. Musically, ‘Unapologetic’ is one of Rihanna’s more successful creative statements. The great strength of the ongoing project of her as the world’s biggest pop star, is that operating at such a work rate (this is her seventh album in seven years) means each record has moved things on. It’s why, as fun as 2011’s Calvin Harris banger ‘We Found Love’ was, her last album ‘Talk That Talk’ floundered by following the EDM pack too slavishly. On ‘Unapologetic’, French overlord of the genre, David Guetta, is present, and his contributions on tracks like the opener ‘Phresh Off The Runway’ are largely box-ticking exercises to illustrate Rihanna’s commitment to making loads of money, but they’re at least subtle.
At its best, ‘Unapologetic’ trades in daring avant pop, and has an absence of straight-up bangers. The Eminem hook-up ‘Numb’ trades in the same broad strokes that their previous collab, 2010’s ‘Love The Way You Lie’, did; it’s based around a rave siren and sees Marshall Mathers pop up only briefly, and in cartoon mode. ‘Jump’ features Chase And Status’ dubstep wobbles in challenging style, ‘What Now’ is a bonkers marriage of pianos and bass-pop, and ‘No Love Allowed’ revisits the dancehall tales of murder from 2011 single ‘Man Down’, but this time surrounded by an oppressively murky fug. Perhaps best of all is ‘Love Without Tragedy’/‘Mother Mary’, a suite of Moog-y experimental electronica that morphs from love song to full-on confessional, moving Rihanna into a new sonic and emotional space. The mood is occasionally killed by moments of ‘In Da Club’ guff like ‘Pour It Up’, but perhaps that’s just how it has to be in the 2012’s world of Swag Pop. Say what you like about her judgment, but just as Rihanna never asked to be assaulted by Chris Brown, she also never asked for millions of Twitter followers determined to opine about her every decision. ‘Unapologetic’ makes a compelling case for Rihanna knowing what she’s doing. This most compelling of pop phenomena still has something new to offer.