Rihanna’s dark, detached ‘Unapologetic’ offers little of the brashness its title suggests

Rihanna on this week's 'Saturday Night Live.' (Courtesy NBC)
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As you read this, the biggest news on the Rihanna front is the 777 Tour, the sort of cross between junket and pandemonium one gets by sticking more than 150 boozed-up fans and journalists on a zoo plane for seven days.

It’s already produced mountains of breathless copy that simultaneously mocks and revels in the absurdity: 1 p.m. tequila, mutinies with streakers and Occupy chants, and at least one anonymous whistleblower. By the tour’s conclusion, it doesn’t seem implausible that someone might re-enact the Stanford prison experiment and someone else may attempt an actual hijacking, all in the name of the Rihanna experience.

That experience also includes an album, which was premiered on day one of the flight. It received mass—if intoxicated—raves from the 777ers, but listening to the album outside the planebound echo chamber, one wonders why. For a supposed party-starter, Unapologetic is strangely fragile and not much fun.

Most critics have noted Unapologetic’s bleakness. It’s “a pretty depressing experience,” writes Alexis Petridis for the Guardian; it’s “soooooo sad,” says Matthew Perpetua at Buzzfeed. It’s difficult toargue. The most upbeat track is “Nobody’s Business,” an airy Chris Brown duet that quotes blues standard “Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do”—two facts that should speak for themselves. Even the Brown-free tracks seem like they could plausibly be about him, concerning themselves as they do with painful tangles of relationships. The promisingly titled “Loveeeee Song” has Future in autotune-drunkard mode, moaning “I hope I’m not sounding too desperate” and sounding entirely so; when Rihanna joins him, it comes across less as love than two people settling. There are more ballads, more ponderous than usual: Police-like “Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary,” which begins with Marilyn Monroe-pitying sadcore worthy of Lana Del Rey and ends in an actual prayer, and “What Now,” where Rihanna admits to “going through the motions” and being unable to cry. “Numb” is woozy and shapeless, as if sung from amid a pharmaceutical haze; follow-up “Pour It Up” isn’t much more lucid. The obvious single, meanwhile, is “Jump”—a dubstep mashup of “Pony” and the Kris Kross song of the same name, which should be massive. Yet in Rihanna’s version, that Ginuwine chorus isn’t a come-on so much as a plea to a man whose saddle’s getting plenty of action elsewhere. When your first line is “tell me that you love me when you know you don’t love me, but I guess that’s all good,” there’s nowhere to go but down.

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It’s not surprising for Rihanna to mine such fraught ground. There’d been dark and detached undertones to her singles for a while—on Rated R, they weren’t undertones at all. The mood also fits the trend in urban music, a genre Unapologetic veers closer to than her past, poppier releases; “Pour It Up,” in particular, sounds like a remake of Atlanta producer Mike WiLL’s previous hit, “Bandz A Make Her Dance.” And any darkness Rihanna’s plumbing is deliberate on her part. Though she has no writing credits (unlike on Rated R), the slate of songs she’s chosen is remarkably self-aware, both of the sort of attention that lyrics like “I pray love won’t strike twice” will garner her from those who see every track as a supplement to her tabloid drama, and of the criticism she’ll likely face. Starting the album, in the middle of “Phresh Out the Runway”’s belligerent rant, she may well be talking about herself: “How can you be so hood, but you’re so fuckin’ pop?/ How can you be so fun and sound like you’re selling rocks?”

They’re questions nobody seems to have asked Rihanna’s promoters. It’s not that the promo around the album is slapdash—that’d be impossible for someone as famous and meticulously branded as Rihanna—but it suggests another album entirely. The title, Unapologetic, suggests a brash confidence that on record comes off entirely feigned; meanwhile, on its cover, Rihanna’s scrawled over her body words like “happy,” “fearless,” and “fun,” none of which apply to the music inside. She’s chosen the only possible lead single that could be plausibly called “happy and hippy,” and her video and performances have been similarly innocuous; unless you’re one of seven angry seapunks, it’s hard to find anything controversial about them. Her plane trick’s getting her endless positive press, most of it party-oriented. It all points to a very different album than Unapologetic, where Rihanna sounds like she checked out of the party long ago.

It’d be easy to see such moves as a way for Def Jam to distract onlookers from the thud of an album they’re promoting. But in a way, they make the album hit harder. If Rihanna’s relying on her reconciliation with Brown to give the tormented-love songs on Unapologetic extra frisson, then it’s equally plausible she and her team are doubling down on her hyper-branded, hypercompetent persona only to make it more wrenching to get up close and see how much is falling apart behind it. Take it from her: “I guess the kind of songs that I’ve been singing make it seem as if I’m always winning,” Rihanna sings on bonus track “Half of Me,” “but that’s just the half of it.” The other half, in song and in reality, remains a downer.