Being Rihanna, it seems, means never having to say you're sorry.
That must come in handy -- especially when you make albums like Unapologetic.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its defiant title, RiRi has plenty to atone for on her seventh album in nearly as many years. Front and centre on her list of sins: Her much-publicized reunion with the universally repugnant Chris Brown. "You'll always be my boy, I'll always be your girl," she promises over the old-school disco groove of Nobody's Business. "Every touch becomes infectious. Let's make out in this Lexus." Yes, do -- that will make it easier for him to drop you off at the ER afterward.
Sadly, it doesn't stop there. Too much of Unapologetic seems keen to exploit Rihanna's abusive past. "Like a bullet, your love hit me to the core; I was flying till you knocked me to the floor," go the lyrics to the lilting reggae of No Love Allowed. "I pray that love don't strike twice," she adds on Love Without Tragedy, which posits that the two go together. Whether this is self-empowerment or Stockholm Syndrome, only she knows. Either way, it makes for uncomfortable listening. And the rest of Unapologetic (due out Tuesday) isn't much more satisfying. The problems:
Too Many Ballads
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, an album apparently spent dwelling on renewed feelings for your abusive ex isn't the most upbeat affair. Nearly half of Unapologetic's 14 songs are ballads. Some like Stay are basic piano laments. Others like Get it Over With are lushly orchestrated. Still others like Diamonds are chilly and electronic, or full-on breast-beaters like What Now. But the bottom line is there are simply too many of them. Does this make Unapologetic her most personal and revealing album? Perhaps. But you could say it's also her most self-indulgent and unenjoyable.
Not Enough Bangers
The flip side of the ballad coin, of course, is that too few songs deliver the energy and attitude fans expect from Rihanna. Opener Fresh (or Phresh, depending on which track list you use) Out the Runway, with its rubbery bass bounce and foul-mouthed lyrics, is obviously meant to lure in listeners. From there, it's a long dry spell until the next oasis -- the dubstep-sprinkled Jump (which borrows from Ginuwine's Pony) and Right Now (which features a guest spot from David Guetta). Toss in Nobody's Business and No Love Allowed and that's all the fun there is.
Too Much Dubstep
Along with Jump and Right Now, two other cuts -- the bombastic What Now and Lost in Paradise -- are dusted with dubstep's woozy wubba-wubba. That's at least two tunes too many for a genre rapidly nearing the end of its shelf life. Granted, nobody has ever considered Rihanna a cutting-edge artist. But until now, she's been adept at setting or at least riding trends. She's already been to the dubstep well. To go back so heavily this time suggests she's losing her touch. At the very least, she should have hired Skrillex.
Obviously, Brown's presence is the unavoidable turd in the album's punch bowl. But other VIPs don't do much to sweeten the mix. Guetta's garden-variety EDM makes you wonder why he's still a superstar DJ. Newcomers like Future (who croons on Loveeeeeee Song) and Mikky Ekko (who contributes to Stay) acquit themselves well, but don't add star power. Even the mighty Eminem comes off poorly; his typically demented rhyme is sandwiched incongruously into the last minute of the otherwise bland Numb. Which brings us to the album's chief failing:
Too many tracks -- including Numb, Love Without Tragedy and more -- just aren't up to snuff. They're underwritten, one-dimensional and repetitive, with choruses that don't get the job done and arrangements that feel tossed off or thrown together. Maybe this is what happens when you make an album every year. Or maybe she's just off her game. Either way, fans deserve an apology. But they shouldn't hold their breath waiting for it.
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