Ever since 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad, Rihanna has built a reputation for being pop’s bad girl. Songs like “S&M,” a risqué Instagram feed, an occasionally R-rated Twitter stream, nearly nude cover photos and her unrepentant love of marijuana helped cement that standing in the music community, but it’s her new album, Unapologetic, that may be truly controversial. Not just because it features a track, “Nobody’s Business,” featuring her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, but because it is a raw, dark album with only a few ready-made chart-topping singles on it. In short, it doesn’t sound much like the last six Rihanna albums, which isn’t entirely a bad thing. Unapologetic is the 24-year-old Barbadian singer’s seventh studio album in seven years and her fourth in four consecutive Novembers. She may be ready for a change in artistic direction. While this is not her best album, it feels like her most personal and with it’s urban R&B sound, it may be an indicator of the direction Rihanna is heading as an artist. With that in mind, here’s our five step plan for learning to love Rihanna’s Unapologetic:
1. Get Invited on the 777 World Tour
To promote her new album, Rihanna had the cunning idea to invite 150 journalists and some members of her fan club for a once-in-a-lifetime experience: to accompany her as she played seven shows in seven countries around the world. Onboard the Boeing 777 plane, the journalists have been plied with gifts, including R-emblazed Moleskine notebooks and, more impressively, conflict free diamonds (diamonds!). The champagne has flowed freely, sometimes even at the hand of Ri Ri herself, who upon departure took over the PA system and reportedly ordered the journalists to “get muthaf*&@in’ crunk.” The weeklong trek began in Mexico City and made its way around the world with stops in Toronto, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, London and New York. It’s a PR stunt that will go down in the annals of music marketing history, whispered about during the next recession (“remember when?”) and also a very good reason to go into music journalism. (Rihanna, call me!) It is also, however, a slap in the face to ever single indie band out there struggling to make it as an artist and to get a single member of the press to notice them. Plus, it may not be going very well. Rolling Stone‘s contributor on the flight described it as “somewhere between a wasted opportunity and living in Rihanna jail.” The Independent notes that at one point the crowd of journalists was chanting, “I need a headline” and “Just one quote!” as a streaker ran down the aisle of the plane.
Still for those of us not onboard, we can only imagine that they are just saying that to make us feel better.
2. Remember She’s Young, But Skip “Nobody’s Business” Anyway
Playing out a relationship in the spotlight can’t be fun, but when you’re reuniting with an assailant to make a pop song, it’s not. After Chris Brown battered Rihanna in an ugly spat before the 2009 Grammy Awards ceremony, he pleaded guilty to felony assault and received probation. Fast forward three years and they are singing together and asking, “Could we become love’s persona?” in “Nobody’s Business.” Though Rihanna told Andy Cohen on Facebook Live that the song is about her personal life in general, not her relationship with Brown, it’s hard to pretend that “Nobody’s Business” isn’t about the duo singing.
While “Nobody’s Business” seemingly embraces the unearned defiance that Chris Brown showed on his album, Fortune, Rihanna sends out mixed messages in other songs on the album: On “No Love Allowed” she sings, “Your love hit me to the core/I was fine till you knocked me to the floor” and on “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary” she sings, “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.” Such are the foibles of youth, but if you want to play out your tempestuous relationship in private, don’t write a song about it. If you do, then it starts to feel like provocation for provocation’s (and publicity’s) sake.
3. Revel in the Contributors
Strangely, for an album that plays as deeply personal, Rihanna does not have a single writing or production credit. Yet Billboard claims that “Rihanna herself was more collaborative than usual, contributing to five of the songs including Guetta’s ‘Right Now’ and ‘Phresh Out the Runway’ as well as ‘Nobody’s Business’ and ‘Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary’.” However much credit Rihanna herself deserves for the behind-the-scenes development of the songs, she relied on a cast and crew of who’s who in the music business right now to make the album. “Phresh Out the Runway,” the opening track, pairs superstar EDM DJ David Guetta with The-Dream, whose own album release date keeps getting pushed back. The ribald Mike WiLL Made It-assisted song “Pour It Up” takes listeners out for a cash-and-strippers night on the club with a female lead. Australian songwriting heavy hitter Sia Furler, who brought us David Guetta’s “Titanium” as well as Ne-Yo’s “Let Me Love You”, penned the album’s lead single “Diamonds.” Rihanna pairs with Future on the duet “Loveeeeeee Song,” which also samples Ginuwine’s “Pony” to great eyebrow-raising effect. Then there’s “Stay,” a heart-wrenching ballad featuring Mikky Ekko, whose voice hits you like a punch in the stomach—in a good way.
Eminem finally repays the favor of Rihanna appearing on the chorus of “Love the Way You Lie,” a song that helped revive his career, by rapping on “Numb.” While his contribution is minimal, and you have to suffer through hearing him say lines like, “I’m the siren that you hear / I’m the butt police, and I’m looking at your rear, rear, rear,” it’s nice to have Eminem on the mic again.
And longtime Rihanna producers Stargate teamed up with Adele and singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé to craft the album’s closer, “Half of Me.” It’s a track that showcases the power of Rihanna’s voice and makes you wish Adele had written all of the ballads on Unapologetic.
4. Realize That Unapologetic is a far more interesting album than its predecessor, Talk That Talk.
While Rihanna has become synonymous with corporate music-by-the-numbers, churning out number one pop songs, Unapologetic is pretty far from your normal pop album. The lyrical content is dark, but cohesive, and the diverse group of producers have created songs that deserve a few listens. Plus, Rihanna’s vocals continue to improve, which is particularly evident in the ballads “Half of Me” and the sappy standout “Stay.”
It’s these ballads that also give a hint of the direction that Rihanna may be heading in as an artist—less pop princess and more R&B diva. While it’s unlikely that Rihanna will be giving up her club-worthy tracks entirely, Unapologetic has fewer danceable tracks than you might expect. For every track like “Diamonds”—which, frankly, is no “We Found Love” as far as dance numbers are concerned—there’s another like “What Now” or the loping reggae-laden “No Love Allowed.” Rihanna even elicited a hip-hop track, “Right Now,” from EDM heavy hitter David Guetta.
5. Just Give In
Much like Star Trek’s Borg, when it comes to Rihanna, resistance is futile. These songs are going to be everywhere. You may as well start preparing for the inevitable spontaneous dance battles now.