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Rihanna, ‘Unapologetic’ (Def Jam)

Rihanna / Photo by Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: November 19, 2012
Label: Def Jam

Few artists spell out their inner monologues as plainly as Rihanna does. Almost every question about the singer’s state of mind over her seven-year, seven-album career has been answered by her album titles. We first met her in 2005 as a beauty bathed in the light of her native Barbados (Music of the Sun) and she quickly started growing into her budding pop stardom (2006’s A Girl Like Me). Since February 8, 2009, when her life changed at the angry hands of Chris Brown, she’s become increasingly rebellious: depressed and furious (2009’s Rated R), ready to reclaim her party-hearty sassiness (2010’s Loud), and dirty-as-fuck (2011’s Talk That Talk). Back in 2007, at 19 years old, Rihanna proclaimed that she was a Good Girl Gone Bad; now she’s doing her damnedest to live out that prophecy.

It’s been a profitable approach. The arrival of a new Rihanna album in time for Black Friday for the fourth year in a row proves that her label sees her as an undeniable cash machine. The fact that it’s a great album — one of the best collections of pop music in a cutesy 12-month run of one-offs like “Call Me Maybe” and “Gangnam Style” — proves that both parties are holding up their side of the bargain, whatever the emotional toll.

And so, Unapologetic rolls out with the grimy neck-snapper “Phresh Out the Runway” then gets to the radio killers — the stately Sia-assisted single “Diamonds” and chilly, Eminem-featuring “Numb.” Riri and Slim’s previous smash team-up “Love the Way You Lie” probed the impact of domestic abuse; this one features the line, “I’m the butt police, and I’m looking at your rear rear rear.”

Elsewhere, Rihanna sings about her unapologetic love of money (the moody, murky “Pour It Up”), her unapologetic love of love (slow-jam “Loveeeee Song,” featuring a gushy, Auto-Tune-warbling Future), her unapologetic love of living in the moment (winning David Guetta thumper “Right Now”), and most controversially, her unapologetic love of Chris Brown. Her onetime beau pops up on the record’s most gleeful groove, “Nobody’s Business,” a breezy throwback that interpolates Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

That the duo decided to inject their obstinate anthem with music by a man who was the victim of, and accused perpetrator of, physical abuse during his tormented 50 years on Earth is almost too much to unpack. But emotional baggage has become the key instrument in Rihanna’s arsenal, right next to her flat, thin, nimble, expressionless voice. As hard as Unapologetic tries to cast Riri as a Beyoncé-like balladeer on the dramatic “What Now” and “Stay,” the younger star’s vocals will never have the curvy fullness of her mentor Jay-Z’s wife. She isn’t a full-bodied diva; she’s a pointy provocateur. Her voice’s unadorned nakedness is its greatest strength. She can slither over a grinder like “Jump” (shout-out to Ginuwine’s “My Pony”), or perk up her patois for a reggae tune like “No Love Allowed.”

The now-24-year-old’s voice may be simple, but it’s distinctive — and as defiant as her album titles. “What’s love without tragedy?” she demands on the excellent, “Message in a Bottle”-esque “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary” as Unapologetic winds down, sounding at once like a petulant teen and a world-weary woman. Everyone profiting off her ultra-successful career — including Rihanna herself — doesn’t seem to want to find out. Especially when going bad has been such good business.