Since proclaiming herself a Good Girl Gone Bad in 2007, Barbadian singer Rihanna has prolonged her reign as the bad-girl princess of the Hot 100 via pearl-clutching singles like “S&M,” “Man Down,” and “Birthday Cake” and Instagram-based documentation of her lewd behavior. But with her seventh album in as many years, Unapologetic, Rihanna comes as close as she’s gotten to courting actual controversy. Drug use, public nudity, and scandalous singles are all easily waved away as the trappings of persona and youth, but Rihanna’s violent relationship with sentient ball of rage Chris Brown—and, more precisely, her apparent decision to take him back—is the one element of the singer’s life the public doesn’t seem willing to shrug off. Thus Rihanna’s much-discussed duet with Brown, “Nobody’s Business,” forms the rotten core of Unapologetic, a fiery pop album that’s unfortunately coated in the icky residue of unearned defiance that has marked Brown’s recent output.
Regarded in a vacuum, independent of its performers and their history, “Nobody’s Business” is one of Unapologetic’s strongest tracks, summoning Bad-era Michael Jackson for a poorly enunciated, eminently danceable paean to forbidden love. The song’s almost likable enough to sell its premise, were it not followed immediately by “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary.” The first segment of the seven-minute double track includes the lines, “Who knew the course of this one drive / Injured us fatally” and “Felt like love struck me in the night / I prayed that love don’t strike twice,” while the “Mother Mary” portion ends with Rihanna proclaiming “As long as we’ve got each other… I’m prepared to die in the moment.” Combined with “Nobody’s Business,” this represents perhaps the most personal 11 minutes of Rihanna’s entire discography; but despite the insinuating hooks and lavish production from The-Dream, it makes for an exceptionally unsettling 11 minutes.
The rest of Unapologetic is less ambiguous, though spottier quality-wise. It’s too heavy on the sort of milquetoast ballads that have never been Rihanna’s specialty (“What Now,” “Stay”); though the slinky “Get It Over With” has a Weeknd-y flair that plays well with the album’s darker leanings, much more so than the empty drug ballad “Numb,” which wastes its Eminem guest verse. Being a pop record released in 2012, Unapologetic also has its fair share of dubstep and house adrenalizing the uptempo tracks. The David Guetta feature “Right Now” pushes its heady, anthemic hook a little too far into seizure-inducing territory, but “Jump,” which samples Ginuwine’s 1996 hit “Pony,” cannily utilizes dubstep’s distinctive bass sound to approximate the belching chorus of the original song. Somehow managing to sound sexy in spite of itself, “Jump” is a perfect example of the sort of seemingly bad decision-making skills that have defined—and elevated—Rihanna’s career, embracing trashy decadence without shame and coming off better for it. If only Rihanna had left it at that and not extended the album’s defiant tone to her romantic life.