Heavy with collaborations, the provocative new album seems long and erratic, never really forming a coherent whole.
Rihanna's Unapologetic lives up to its title
Rihanna clearly has no yearning desire for an easy life. Unapologetic is her seventh album in seven years and arguably the most contentious due to the presence of an abusive ex-boyfriend, Chris Brown, and some provocative lyrics. The title sets the tone: this is a record that some will find shocking.
And some certainly have, with outraged columnists accusing the singer of almost single-handedly derailing feminism, although a perusal of the movie-like credit list does rather cloud the issue. One particularly controversial couplet - "like a bullet your love hit me to the core / I was flying till you knocked me to the floor" - is from a jaunty ska number called No Love Allowed, written by a committee of five. It's questionable how much input the singer actually had there.
Only on the bonus track, Half of Me - one of the album's few truly memorable melodies - does the self-styled rude girl reveal a more vulnerable, self-aware side. "You saw me on the television, hanging out my dirty linen," she warbles, bemoaning that brash public image. And yet the song was actually composed by the emerging British singer Emeli Sandé, who didn't know the star before submitting it. Further dissection is futile.
Rihanna may be the quintessential modern pop star but this is an old-fashioned record in one respect since it contains two distinct sides: speaker-busting club tracks first, then a lengthy chill-out zone. Her team cast a wide net in the search for collaborators.
Of the bigger names, the French DJ/producer David Guetta is on pedestrian form with the upbeat but uninspired Right Now and Phresh Out the Runway, while Eminem adds a forgettable rap to Numb. More successful are the heartfelt hooks of Diamonds, written by the underrated Australian singer Sia Furler; a sparse piano duet called Stay, written by and featuring the Nashville-based prodigy Mikky Ekko; and What Now, an operatic anthem co-authored by another Barbadian, Livvi Franc, on which Rihanna gets to showcase her rarely utilised vocal range.
There are several bright spots, but overall Unapologetic is an erratic, overlong collection, the result of throwing countless creatives together in the hope of conjuring a few iconic singles rather than a coherent whole.
As for that Chris Brown duet, the disco-fuelled but derivative Nobodies Business injects a hefty chunk of Michael Jackson's The Way You Make Me Feel, with the infamous duo even impersonating the much-loved singer along the way. Now that really is playing with fire.