Rihanna is never shy when it comes to courting conflict with her critics. Her rapid-fire series of yearly releases bear witness to that. As does the title of her latest effort, Unapologetic.
First up there's the album cover itself, which we can't even show all of in this review. It features the singer's naked upper torso covered with words such as "Happy," "Faith," "Fearless," "Victory," "Fun" and "Unapologetic." Black magic marker partially obscures one breast; her arm covers part of the other. Inside the CD sleeve she's nearly naked in a string of other photos, many of which show her smoking a cigarette.
Perhaps even more eyebrow-raising than those images, however, is one of the album's guest contributors: Chris Brown. In 2009, Brown brutally beat Rihanna, turning their dating relationship into one of the year's most highly publicized scandals.
Now she says—unapologetically—that she wants him back.
On "Diamonds," Rihanna sings, "I choose to be happy/You and I, you and I/We're like diamonds in the sky."
"What Now" isn't positive, per se. But it does voice a sense of honest, quiet confusion that's in sharp contrast to Rihanna's reckless, rebellious swagger elsewhere. In the wake of a breakup, she sings, "What now? I just can't figure it out/I don't know where to go/I don't know what to feel/I don't know how to cry/I don't know, oh, oh, why."
Rihanna also gets contemplative on "Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary," where she sings, "Mother Mary, I swear I wanna change/Mister Jesus, I'd love to be queen/Never thought this many people would even know my name/ … Oh glory, the prayers carry me."
"Right Now" retreads the infamous rock 'n' roll cliché, "It can't be wrong, not if it feels so right." And what follows here is what Rihanna feels is right:
"Phresh Out the Runway" finds her spewing profane gangsta rap as she brags about sex and money: "I'm f‑‑‑in' ya, cheap thrill on top of my $50 mil." More f-words, as well as references to "b‑‑ches," "n-ggas" and "ho's" turn up later. Similarly nasty is "Jump," on which Rihanna tells a frequent sex partner, "When you f‑‑‑ them other girls I bet they be wondering/Why you always call my name." That's followed by this crudely suggestive chorus: "If you want it, let's do it/Ridin' my pony/My saddle is waitin'/Come and jump on it."
Rihanna then treads on Flo Rida's territory on "Pour It Up," where she croons, "Strip club and dollar bills/I still got my money/Strippers going up and down that pole/And I still got my money." She brags, "Who cares about what I spend?/ … My pocket's deep, and it never ends." The song also includes a reference to oral sex.
Referencing drugs, not natural euphoria, "Numb" asserts, "Ecstasy in the air/I don't care, can't tell me nothing/I'm impaired, the worse for wear/I'm going numb, I'm going numb." "Get It Over With" includes double entendres about rolling joints, lighting up and getting high.
On "Nobody's Business," Rihanna tells Chris Brown, "You'll always be mine/Sing it to the world/Always be my boy, I'll always be your girl/ … Ain't nobody's business/But mine, and my baby." Brown responds, "I love to love to love you, baby/ … Ain't nobody's business." Those lyrics alone wouldn't be problematic, of course, apart from the context of this couple's stormy, physically violent history. But they're soon joined by lines about turning up the temperature in a luxury car. "Your love is perfection," Rihanna coos, "Every touch is infectious/Let's make out in this Lexus."
Perhaps aware that such an embrace of Brown might be hard for some to stomach, Rihanna's next song, "Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary," includes lyrics that seem to reflect more deeply on the couple's difficult history. "You used to be this boy I loved," she sings, "And I used to be this girl of your dreams/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." Now that they're apparently back together, however, she says, "Felt like love struck me in the night/I pray that love don't strike twice."
That Rihanna would describe the assault that left her face battered and bruised as "love" is nothing short of astounding.
On "Numb," guest rapper Eminem contributes these leering lyrics: "I'm the butt police, and I'm looking at you."
Rihanna's prolific hit-making output—she trails only The Beatles, Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson in terms of No. 1 hits—is matched only by her stubborn insistence on rationalizing self-destructive choices. Unapologetic unapologetically glorifies raunchy sex, going to strip clubs, using drugs, spending recklessly and embracing the harshest of profanities.
And then there's the whole Chris Brown issue.
Alexis Petridis of Britain's The Guardian writes, "Vast swathes of Unapologetic's lyrics appear to be concerned with Rihanna and Brown's relationship. You get a lot of stuff about how exciting dangerous men are, the appeal of affairs that are wrong but feel right, how no one else can match up to him. 'I pray that love don't strike twice,' offers 'Love Without Tragedy,' again inviting an inevitable response: you want to pray your ghastly on-off boyfriend doesn't, either."
Petridis concludes his review with, "Listening to Unapologetic is a pretty depressing experience." I agree. As much as one might hope that that the years since Brown's attack have blessed the singer with wisdom and perspective, nothing on Rihanna's latest effort indicates that's actually happening.