Why should we believe anything Rihanna says anymore? She seems disingenuously interested in using the incident tabloids regard (with some justification) as the most intriguing story in her life as an artistic crutch. As her private life continues to disappoint people for whom said incident is, according to the title of her new album’s best and most tactless song, “Nobody’s Business,” she conversely drops allusions to it in the most indiscreet manner. Now that the bruises have healed and crazy/stupid love is reportedly once again blooming between Ri and Chris Brown, is she blaming her audience for her abuser’s continued PR nightmare? If so, the lyrical flirtations with disaster that pop up throughout Unapologetic represent one of the most grotesque distortions of “blame the victim” syndrome in pop-music history, a form of Stockhausen syndrome that passes the buck onto the casual bystander. I guess it’s our fault for being so “interested” in what’s being shoved down our throats.
If only the music were compelling enough to back up the supreme bad faith, we’d have the R&B punk masterpiece Robyn “Can I Get a Face Tattoo?” Fenty is clearly aspiring toward, what with that cover art of her bare torso scrawled over with word graffiti, hashtags, and other labels that could be taken as either self-inflicted branding or armor from her fans who both support her and misinterpret her relationship with Brown. The album, her fourth consecutive Thanksgiving release in as many years, does deviate from the lush, comfortably predictable club-banger formula that drove the main singles from Loud and Talk That Talk straight to the top of today’s uniformly pile-driving pop charts. But more than any of the three albums that preceded it, Unapologetic sounds exactly like the sort of album that would’ve been cobbled together in a flurry of rushed assembly-line activity, with most of the high points operating independent of each other—except for the implicit directive to emphasize Rihanna’s belligerent willingness to play devil’s advocate with her own public persona. Though she feigned contemplative in 2009’s Rated R (the first album in the immediate aftermath of Browngate), she’s since come to the conclusion that she’d rather stay tough, beating up on those who would dare show concern.
Accordingly, Unapologetic comes hard out of the gate with “Phresh Out the Runway,” a Joey Beltram-swiping chopped-n’-screwed rave anthem in which Rihanna tells anyone who doesn’t respect her crew they need to fucking step off. “How could you be so hood, but you’re so fuckin’ pop?/How could you be so fun and sound like you’re selling rocks?” she barks, against a track co-produced by The-Dream and David Guetta. Mostly frontloaded with urban-aimed midtempo tracks, Unapologetic moves from the swampy “Numb,” on which Eminem declares himself the “butt police,” and the skittering, pitched-down “Loveeeeeee Song” to the ice-cold “Jump,” an echoey dubstep torture chamber in which Rihanna emotionlessly interpolates the chorus of Ginuwine’s “Pony” to incongruously depressing effect. Somewhere, Channing Tatum’s G-string is frowning.
When the album’s second half diverges into lighter musical territory, Rihanna keeps the tone down and dirty with as many disquieting references to her cracked love life as she can muster. “I’m prepared to die in the moment,” she informs on “Mother Mary.” “Like a bullet your love hit me to the core/I was fine ‘til you knocked me to the floor/And it’s so foolish how you keep me wanting more/I’m screaming ‘Murderer!’” is the picture she paints on the beatless, eerily chirpy electro-ragga “No Love Allowed.” And then there’s the album’s icky centerpiece: “Nobody’s Business,” yet another post-reconciliatory duet between Rihanna and Brown, which adds insult to injury by accompanying lines about getting down in a Lexus (to say nothing of the hypocrisy of forging a collaboration that will by virtue of the teaming raise eyebrows, and then preemptively telling everyone off for paying attention) against the most mellifluously seductive dance grooves on the whole album, in part borrowed from Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” The conflicted feelings the track raises could shatter a disco ball. While compelling on its own terms, Rihanna never seems to figure out that being Unapologetic isn’t the same thing as picking fights on the dance floor.