In celebrity annals, few things are more attention-grabbing – or degrading – than working out an abusive relationship in public.
On Rihanna’s seventh studio album, “Unapologetic” (Def Jam), the singer one-ups the exploitation industry by dueting with her former boyfriend and abuser, Chris Brown, to declare that their tempestuous romance is “Nobody’s Business.” Initial reaction: This dysfunctional couple has turned the track into a sick marketing ploy. You can even dance to it! The production casts the song in strings, piano and a four-on-the-floor kick drum, a canny merger of Chicago stepping music and golden-age house.
But there’s no escaping that Brown battered Rihanna in an ugly lover’s spat in 2009. He pleaded guilty to felony assault and received probation. Both artists resumed their careers under a microscope, their every word parsed for hints about their relationship.
Neither performer went away, even for a brief time. Brown maintained a largely business-as-usual distance on albums that continued to sell, and Rihanna churned out annual, even more commercially successful albums and tours. The 2009 “Rated R” album found her by turns defiant, haunted and vulnerable, as personal an album as she has ever made. Subsequent releases found her burrowing deeper into effervescent dance pop, with songs that promised ecstasy on the dancefloor or in the bedroom as escape from the world outside.
With “Unapologetic,” Rihanna turns contemplative again, enlisting an army of production gurus, song massagers and hitmakers, from dance maven David Guetta to ace R&B songwriter The Dream. As an artist who has sold more than 25 million albums, Rihanna now makes music by corporate committee. Yet nearly every song feels like it’s telling her story, painting a larger picture than just the haphazard collection of singles that was “Loud” (2010) and “Talk That Talk” (2011).
Rihanna hasn’t entirely abandoned hooky, uptempo pop anthems. “Unapologetic” continues her embrace of cutting-edge, Skrillex-era dance rhythms, the squelching synthesizers and wobbly bass lines of dubstep. “Phresh off the Runway,” “Jump” and “Pour it Up” celebrate live-for-the-moment hedonism. But in the context of an album dominated by ballads and at least superficially introspective lyrics, they feel like respites, a chance to get “Numb,” as one song title declares.
The latter features a disappointing rap cameo from Eminem, who obsesses about his duet partner’s anatomy. Maybe it’s intended as comic relief, because much of “Unapologetic” is a tough listen, ostensibly a pop album from one of the biggest pop stars of our time that’s dark and emotionally complex. Despite what Rihanna claims on “Nobody’s Business,” many of the songs portray a narrator who is troubled, anxiety-ridden, lost. It’s likely no coincidence that “Unapologetic” next slides into what is the album’s emotional centerpiece, “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary.” Over a vast, open space of vaporous keyboards and distant factory clang, the narrator sings about a turning point in her life: “Who knew the course of this one drive/Injured us fatally/You took the best years of my life/I took the best years of your life.”
Talk about a mixed message. Even Rihanna sounds confused. Glancing references to that “one drive” and that night ripple through the album, like an echo that will never fade. The characters in these songs linger in a limbo of mixed emotions, emotionally attracted to a lover and yet uneasy about the next step. In the stripped-bare piano ballad “Stay,” Rihanna sings, “Funny, you’re the broken one/But I’m the only one who needed saving.”
Fans of celebrity subtext could wallow for months in the hints and allusions. Those who abhor exploitive marketing may be drawn to the songs like a bad car crash. How much of this is Rihanna and how much of it is just a soap-opera steroid, a way to pump up sales? That the question even has to be asked is disturbing.