It’s here. A moment in pop music where the artist set up to look the best, sound the best and actually be the best, lives up to the hyperbole and wins the prize.
Over the next six months, Rihanna will (again) dominate our digital waves whether we want her to or not, but despite the great opportunity to—and even greater expectation that she would—the biggest star on the planet didn’t just chill under that glass ceiling of expectation.
Kinetic and musically varied, Unapologetic is the best album of Rihanna's career. Blasting the sounds of global, post-mod youth culture through every track, she creates an emotional soundtrack not of some affected, stupid-rich celeb, but of a 24-year old survivor who rocks and laughs and cries. A few albums ago no one would have paid attention to a beautiful piano-ballad like “Stay," but now you can't deny the ballad's power, not because we can't rid ourselves of all of Rihanna's dramas (and outfits), but because of how honest and emotionally-connected her vocals now sound.
The first single, “Diamonds,” succeeds in its video-driven who-is-this-about mystery, and works even better if taken as a self-reflective song of love, affirmation and triumph. “…you’re a shooting star I see.”
“What Now” takes a page from Pink’s yell-as-long-as-you-have-a-great-hook style and raises her one.
Then “Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary” takes some Madonna-esque ‘90s synth notes and flips them into a brave confessional. “Mr. Jesus, I would love to be a Queen… / but I’m from the left side of an island” is the chant that will end her stadium tours with a perfect raise-your-smartphone-candle moment. “I’m prepared to die..." she cries. A 21st century big-girl-lost.
Unapologetic is Rihanna’s 7th album in as many years and so I’m transferring my “hottest working in show business” title—held by Diddy for a decade—to the Barbadian workaholic with over 140 MM digital sales worldwide & twelve Hot 100 #1s singles. Most of the hits have been the brash and upbeat kind.
“Fresh Out The Runway” continues the tradition. It's loud and as curse-filled as it should be to satisfy the album title, reminding all the parents from the album’s first verse that your tween ain’t ready for Rihanna yet. The second David Guetta produced electronic dance track, “Right Now,” is a future #1 that sounds so obvious because...the bass thumps, techno horns and catchy melody just make it that good.
See, Adele was our last pop obsession. Her success was a wonderful correction on the landscape, a reminder that every seven years listeners must experience overwhelming talent or else suffer that same-song-over-and-over descent into superficiality. Unapologetic also helps us avoid that fate soaring when it unhooks itself from what’s pop-current and comfortable.
Deep in nightclub basements, tracks like the dark, ethereal “Power It Up” or “Jump” sound like radio versions of the electro and dub-step ahead-of-the-curve kids have been raving to for a year. Yep, it’s hard to find the beat to dance to on “Numb” but that’s the whole point. When the song’s get-twisted-to-this melody gets destroyed by an Eminem guest verse that sounds like it’s been pushed through a digital wood chipper, hope you have the largest Beats headphones.
The same are-you-cool-enough-test happens on “Loveeee Song” feat Future (you fail if you say he sounds like a drunk singing a love song) until the album pulls back with the more straight-ahead “Lost In Paradise” and dancehall-tinged gem “No Love Allowed.”
Lately, Rihanna’s critics haven’t needed to comment on her actual music or talent, the girl's personal life has given them all the bullets they need to shoot her down one Instagram pic at a time. This album doesn't care either way, re-upping the chamber not with the rumor of a make-up with the (tragic) redemptive Chris Brown, but the actual fact of it—at least on wax.
Their duet, “Nobody’s Business” is already the album’s most talked-about track, but…guess what? it’s also the album’s best, a perfect blend of R&B soul and pop feel-good with an irresistible sing-in-the-shower falsetto hook. Rih Rih and her ex harmonize over a cool melody that makes you dance to what is essentially a middle-finger-to-the-world hook. When Brown grunts “ain’t nobody’s bidness, but mine and my baby…” he’s impersonating Michael Jackson on purpose. MJ’s “Leave Me Alone” ain’t got nothing on this.
So when the 24/7 mania comes for "Nobody's Business"'s forthcoming music video—and I’m as sure that will happen as I am Gov Christie will announce his ’16 Presidential run the week after he covers People mag 100 lbs lighter—Rihanna’s triumph is a super fresh song from a super fresh artist at the very top of her game. No apologies needed.