x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Rihanna's Unapologetic ups the intensity

Despite the subject matter, the singer is injecting some much-needed candour into the sea of insipid generalities making up pop music's lyrical landscape these days.

Disturbing, depressing and downright creepy are not words normally associated with pop albums.

But readers should get used to such terms when reading reviews of Rihanna's new album, Unapologetic.

Anyone thinking the title is a declaration of post-domestic abuse independence should turn the cover to discover fellow R&B star Chris Brown - the man who was charged with physically assaulting Ree-Ree - duetting on the not-so-subtle track Nobodies Business.

That warning couldn't stop criticism that Rihanna is peddling unsavoury messages through a medium supposed to be light and escapist.

Such arguments are invalid.

Despite the subject matter, at least Rihanna is injecting some much-needed candour into the sea of insipid generalities making up pop music's lyrical landscape these days.

It also confirms modern pop music's flexibility to discuss tougher issues than Twitter and teenage love.

Indeed, if you scan the past four decades of pop hits, a lot of sugary melodies were used to disguise tales of domestic violence and its aftermath.

In 2000, the Dixie Chicks scored a hit with Goodbye, Earl. The song is a revenge romp with best friends Mary Anne and Wanda deciding to kill the latter's husband after he "walked right through that restraining order and put her in intensive care".

The song moved on to describe how Earl was eventually dumped in a lake after his black-eyed beans were poisoned.

Eminem made a career from songs dealing with his emotionally abusive relationship with ex-partner Kim. The rapper performed one of the tracks, 2010's Love the Way You Lie, during his Abu Dhabi performance as part of the Formula One concert series in November.

Even the Beatles took on the topic in 1965's Run For Your Life.

What made the track, from the album Rubber Soul, more jarring is that John Lennon's lyrics ("I'd rather see you dead, little girl / than to be with another man") were sung over a somewhat benign melody.

Not all pop artists are fond of rubbing up dark lyrics against bright arrangements.

Tracy Chapman took the already sparse sounds of her 1988 debut album to a new level with Behind the Wall. This harrowing a cappella track finds her a witness to domestic violence occurring in the apartment next door.

While Rihanna is not singing from the same song-sheet as domestic violence campaigners, her album will surely spark further, much-needed discussion of the issue.

It will be for the record-buying public to decide whether her stance is one of conviction or just another marketing ploy.