*** (out of 4)
Rihanna's new album “Unapologetic,” her best since “Good Girl Gone Bad” and maybe her best ever, finds the singer conflicted. She explores both tragic love and her general badassness in a way that hints at some interior reality. (This vulnerability, and the power of hope in a place fractured by love, contrasts with the impregnable ice fortress of pop stardom Rihanna has built around her.) With that mission in mind, the singer's A-team of collaborators offers a varied range of ideas that Rihanna handles skillfully.
As an artist with malleable talent and a history of jumping between genres, Rihanna is comfortable throwing excessive cascades of any sound resembling pop at her listeners. Where some might see something like a dubstep interpolation of Ginuwine's “Pony” with an Auto-Tuned Kanye verse as a sign of hopelessly cynical excess, an optimist might applaud the absurd envelope-pushing of the undertaking. If Rihanna asks you to ride her dubstep pony, I'm of the opinion that you hop on that wobbly steed.
Sure, you may have to put up with the occasional unwanted stop-and-frisk from the “butt police” that Eminem invokes in his supremely stupid verse. What you get, though, other than the requisite David Guetta interlude, is a weird and challenging album. Songs like “Phresh Out The Runway” and “Pour It Up” pick up the mantle of the Timbaland-produced late '90s' swaggering, futuristic minimalism, while lead single “Diamonds” taps into and trumps the new-agey melodrama of Rihanna's British peers like Florence + Machine. Future collaboration “Loveeeeeee Song” floats to a transcendent perch on the rapper/singer's Auto-Tuned croak and "Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary" is a reminder of Rihanna's talent for fragile ballads. Even the gossip-trolling Chris Brown feature "Nobody's Business" works surprisingly well.
As its title suggests, this album captures Rihanna both asserting her strengths and openly dismissing her critics. Embracing pop and R&B's unusual edges, our heroine remains indestructible.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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