Rihanna (or Riri if you’re fancy) has struggled to release a full album worth of hits (a la bestie Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’) and sadly, ‘Unapologetic’ is no exception. Her seventh release is plagued with her usual vices – sex, drugs, and cash – thoughtfully crafted by some of the most sought out songwriters in the game today. While the downtempo songs save the album from #heretodaygonetomorrow status, one can’t help but wonder when her album formulas will progress. When you look at other releases from her primary competitors in the urban market, the progression with each body of work is evident even if it’s the slightest. Riri’s songs lack true shelf-life, which usually finds her fans desperately protesting on Twitter for her “next album” months (or even days) after the preceding one’s release. Luckily for her (and her label), she has enough money to waste on mediocre full releases that only satisfy temporarily. In a world filled with artists crossing genres left and right to evolve their sound and artistry, Riri’s ‘Unapologetic’ remains stuck and finds her sinking like quicksand.
“Phresh Out The Runway” starts off the album with the obvious club-track intro while attempting to please ‘Talk That Talk’ fans with a hard-hitting uptempo opener. As the title and chorus repeats itself, I found myself correcting former high school attendee Riri’s grammar, replacing “out” with “off” as I sluggishly sang along. With The-Dream’s adlibs serving as the chorus and Riri’s profanely spoken verses, I’m not sure if she’s “unapologetic” about Terius’s influence or her excessive use of “fuck” and “bitches”. The “Phresh” beat sounds like its been several times by Dream before – on Dream’s ‘1977’ mixtape, several Ciara album tracks, and on Electrik Red’s debut album. Either way, the nonsensical-ness of “Runway” makes for a good drunken song to listen to, but that’s about it.
First single “Diamonds” is Riri’s attempt to be profound and prophetic, to belittling results. The vocals aren’t her best, and also relies on a repeated spoken chorus (“shine bright like a diamond”) to sell the song. While Sia’s songwriting sets Riri up for a more adult contemporary, lyric conscious audience, its no more than the song on the album Def Jam paid the most for. In usual first single format for Riri, her label pays big bucks for the hottest songwriters out at the moment to hopefully write the Barbados starlet a winning debut album single. I can guarantee you that no one listens to “Diamonds” and says that Riri wrote a very beautiful song, because that would be a flat out lie. The song also aids in my theory that record labels release the worst and least commercial song first, force-feeding it to persuade listeners who hope for better songs on the album. Towards the end, her vocals begin reaching for their last breath and sounds more like screeching than shining, which makes me think Def Jam may have spent more money than they should have.
“Numb” (feat. Eminem) is the darkest song on the album, but is oddly radio friendly. Riri’s verses are short and sweet, while the chorus only contains three words hammered into the ground (“I’m going numb”). Eminem’s distorted verse is even shorter, which makes the rewind button a must to properly understand his message. The song does great wonders for the urban listener, but its full potential as a bonafide hit for Riri remains to be seen. Again, her label looked to someone else other than the artist to help sell a somewhat basic song with even more basic songwriting. Without the Kanye-like production, “Numb” could easily be a Carly Rae Jepsen radio-only single. “Pour It Up” finds Riri once again speaking her verses, and shouting off-key notes during the chorus – a bad combination for any artist, seasoned veteran or not. However, rap producer Mike WILL Made It gave her a beat similar to many songs he’s released to radio already (“Tupac Back”, “Turn On The Lights”, “No Lie”). The “bands make your girl go down” reference to Juicy J’s “Bands A Make Her Dance” is cheaply executed and makes me wonder if she cut him a check for the namedrop. Serving as the shortest song on ‘Unapologetic’, there’s not much to take from “Up” except that Riri loves spending money on drugs and high-quality liquor. Judging from most of her fanbase, who wouldn’t?
“Loveeeeee Song” (feat. Future) would sound much better without the rap influence. Riri’s vocals are overshadowed by some #drunktrade singing a chorus for someone who claims to be a vocalist. While she yearns for consistency in her own love and affection, Future begs for it as if it’s his last meal ever. The poor “Song” tries every effort to be serious, but judging solely on what we’re all here for – vocals – it fails on every front. Furthermore, the fact that Jay-Z approved the song as his favorite track on ‘Unapologetic’ questions his credibility (source), as it unquestionably stands as the worst vocal on the album. While Riri’s attempt is radio worthy, I wouldn’t be surprised if a solo version of “Loveeeeee Song” gets released to radio – at least for my own sake.
“Jump” is the only song on the album that has the most potential to reach #1 on the charts – for two reasons. Her two favorite production teams – Chase & Status (“Wait Your Turn”, “G4L”) and Stargate (“Rude Boy”, “S&M”, “Only Girl (In The World)”) team up for the first time in music history, an unusual move especially for producers in the same market. Second, the clever jacking of Ginuwine’s “Pony” sample makes for a true club staple. The sample remains untouched, as she uses the chorus (melody and all) exactly as Ginuwine’s version, leading me to conclude that ‘Unapologetic’ was extremely rushed. Everything from the beat to the verses sounds “Pony”-esque and without the production, one would begin to think Riri started getting lazy with her four-month seventh effort, but strangely it works in the most cross-formatted way possible.
“Right Now” (feat. David Guetta) suffers from extreme overproduction on multiple levels. The song, written some of the best songwriters in the game (Stargate, The-Dream, Ne-Yo, Nicky Romero, and Guetta himself) comes off with too much arrangement and too little substance. Guetta’s influence is clearly noticeable upon a first listen, but the beat breakdowns nearly every 30-seconds into a Skrillex-type drop (#beatbiter). But with #grammarfail lyrics such as “tomorrow way too far away” and “we got right now” being screeched on top of his beats makes it slightly unbearable to listen to. Seems like they pulled everyone in they could to possibly create a bonafide #1 single but comes off more like a forced continuation of “We Found Love” or “Only Girl (In The World)”. “What Now” finds the listener biting their nails and asking the question “what now” – literally. At the halfway mark of ‘Unapologetic’, you’d think the material would start to improve in overall quality and staying power, but unfortunately it doesn’t. Not only is Riri screaming throughout the entire song, but it feels like she’s competing with Alicia Keys for worst vocal performance. Secretly, I think the arranger to Keys’s “Girl On Fire” was in the studio egging Riri on to produce a song similar, saying that she must sing loudly in order to have fans feel her emotion. If “What Now” were sung by someone with a higher, pristine range, it would sound more acceptable. Not only am I realizing ‘Unapologetic’ comes with a language barrier, but after about 1:30 in, you have two options – turn down your radio or throw the entire disc out of your car window.
Fortunately for Riri, the second half of ‘Unapologetic’ shines more brightly (a la “Diamonds”) than the first half, beginning with “Stay” (feat. Mikky Ekko). As the British breakout star featured here writes a beautiful, touching ballad for Riri, it is Lana Del Rey’s producer Justin Parker (“Born To Die”, “Carmen”, “Ride”) that takes the credit for overall presentation. Both vocal performances are above par especially for Riri, but Parker’s piano and bass arrangement echoes sentiments of Lana’s releases sprinkled with mass appeal. After a successful live showing on Saturday Night Live, it’s clear that “Stay” will be a huge success commercially when pushed as the album’s second official single.
“Nobodies Business” (feat. Chris Brown) packs an old-school punch and is the most pop-sounding song on the album, but of course no one really cares about its success. Given their infamous 2009 domestic violence incident, the fact that Breezy and Riri are on a song together has sparked enough controversy. “Your love is perfection – please point me in the right direction” sings Breezy, almost as if you can picture Riri on the other side of the booth with a spliff staring directly into his eyes as he sings each Dream-written verse. Luckily for the on-again off-again duo, the production excels on every front – particularly the perfect timing of the vocal overlay from Michael Jackson’s hit “The Way You Make Me Feel”. “Business” will be successful if ever released, but I’m sure Dream, Riri, and Breezy all paid a hefty dollar from each of their pockets to afford Jackson’s original vocals on a somewhat lukewarm album.
“Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary” is a good attempt for Riri’s producers to explore analytical songwriting, but it comes with a mixed bag of emotions. The song is broken down into two titles and “Love Without Tragedy” may feature one of the most clever transitions (to “Mother Mary”) in the history of R&B, but I’m not sure how convincing the real message is. “Love Without Tragedy” ponders the good and bad side of love’s highs and lows while asking “what’s a love without tragedy?” Ironic, especially since the previous song features her 2009 attacker Brown, but also somewhat apologetic as she questions her decisions with haste and reflection. As “Tragedy” moves into “Mary”, Riri goes from pondering her own decisions within love to taking an apparent inspirational (read: church) slant. “Oh glory the praise carried me” she yells as the arrangement takes a darker turn with a somewhat Christian message. Confusing, but oddly prolific given everything she’s gone through the last three years.
“Get It Over With” requires multiple listens to truly understand her message. “Roll up and go again” she sings with true conviction that she enjoys her recreational drug usage. By using marijuana as her crutch, Riri sings of rekindling her troubled relationship (presumably with Breezy) while coyly using metaphorical references (“we should be lighting it up”). The songwriting especially comes off as more comical than convincing, and with her near-daily 420 references via Twitter, one must wonder if she does anything else besides smoking. Nevertheless, “With” does a good job of exploring the depth of Riri the artist, but does little to supplement her role model status in the industry. Anyone who sells over 150,000 per album should be singing songs of positivity, as they are to be heard around the world. Instead, Riri glorifies a somewhat accepted vice, giving young listeners more fuel to continue their illegal activity and get back with their abusive boyfriends.
“No Love Allowed” could easily be seen as a sequel to “Man Down” with its similar allusions to murder, but excels on a higher level than its ‘Loud’ predecessor. The reggae-tinged song packs heavy bass and even heavier subject matter, and fits right in with Riri’s overall artist statement. Her vocals are also much better on songs that reflect her heritage, but “Allowed” doesn’t provide enough punch to be a quality radio single. The only thing that’s really odd about “Allowed” is the constant “nigga is you blind” statement used during the bridge. Musicians are somewhat excused from using proper English in their songs, but purposely misplacing verbs in one of the most noticeable parts of any song is a slight fail. “Lost In Paradise” feels as if she’s only appeasing to her British listeners and isn’t meant to be heard in the states. Standing as the final song on the album, “Paradise” has more of an authentic electronic feel and doesn’t feel forced like “Right Now”. Instead, UK hip hop producer Labrinth collaborates with Stargate to deliver one of the real vocal and writing standouts on the entire disc. Riri commands the verses effortlessly and shines even brighter on the dubstep-influenced chorus. The song also marks Labrinth’s first release for an American musician, giving him a huge amount of exposure to Riri’s international fans. Secretly, I’ll be calling the next stateside artist to work with Labrinth a copycat, simply because it won’t be as great as Riri’s collaboration.
Riri’s own manager compared his artist’s yearly releases to the yearly release of the Iphone (source) – everyone’s gotta have it when it first comes out or they aren’t up to date with the latest trends. While most seasoned artists look at each of their releases as a ‘movement’ finding each individual body of work (song) selling their overall credibility further and further, Riri’s releases are more of a product ‘trend’ faction. Hype is built up over the release, it comes out, and it’s not as cohesively great as the promotion that precedes it. Granted ‘Unapologetic’ skirts between the two notions, such shouldn’t happen from any artist on their seventh release. Furthermore, to be compared by her own manager as an “Iphone”, Riri should be offended at being nothing more than a “product”. As #music fans, we look to certain artists for vocal acrobatics, others for dance routines or even their diverse songwriting abilities, while Riri technically wears no hats musically. Paying others to write so-so albums year after year just shows the world that maybe she is too high to control her own artistry. Will every Riri release feature desperate attempts for both urban and mainstream listeners, or will she grow out of her ‘trend’ phase? Judging from this release alone, when Riri sings “what’s a love without tragedy”, I find myself changing the lyric to “what’s a Riri release without tragedy?”