“You’re entitled to your own opinion / sit and shake your head at my decision,” Rihanna sings on “Half of Me,” the closer of her newest album Unapologetic. Clearly, she expects people to judge her. For one, she sings a duet with Chris Brown, her ex- (or maybe not-so-ex) boyfriend who violently abused her in 2009. Their song is called “Nobody’s Business,” and as Rihanna begs him to “make out in this Lexus,” one can’t help but remember that Brown has done other things in cars, things like assault. Unapologetic is also jarringly different from her previous six albums in that it is not a breeding ground for chart-topping singles, nor is it strictly pop. Rihanna’s seventh studio album explores unfamiliar territory, often sounding more hip hop than Top 40, and it’s a change that, frankly, she shouldn’t have to apologize for.
And she doesn’t: “I’m the type that don’t give a f***,” she says on “Half of Me.” For a few years the Barbadian starlet has expressed that same sentiment, but I didn’t believe her until now. Good Girl Gone Bad and Rated R were intended to show Rihanna’s dark side, but the only edgy things she did involved painting herself silver for the “Umbrella” video and wearing an eye-patch in “Wait Your Turn.” I was convinced that she simply had a bad stylist. And then came Loud, in which she sang about the excitement of whips and chains. She was trying so hard to be risqué that I didn’t believe the facade. Her next album Talk That Talk was again disappointing, and I lost heart, mourning the loss of my “Pon de Replay” pop princess and vowing never to listen to her music again (except for when “Cake” played on 97.5).
Now, though, I finally get where Rihanna is going. She’s not in pop/dance/reggae limbo anymore: she’s heading hip hop. And she doesn’t do it badly. It helps that she brings in a few feature artists, including Future, David Guetta and Eminem, as well as a guy named Mikky Ekko. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and yet the song with him in it—“Stay,” a slow piano ballad—is easily my favorite on the album. And David Guetta’s piece, “Right Now,” is one of the few on the CD that is destined to dominate popular radio: it has the same YOLO theme and club style as Ke$ha’s “Die Young.” But even in songs without guest artists, Rihanna holds her own: “Pour It Up” is basically a catchy version of “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” and “Phresh Out the Runway” has Rihanna asking the question: “What’s on my chain? Dollas.” Swag.
That’s not to say Unapologetic is without its missteps. “Jump,” which samples Ginuwine’s “Pony,” builds to a terrifying dubstep breakdown following the lyrics “My saddle is waiting, come and jump on it.” It doesn’t sound very inviting, but thanks anyway, Rihanna. The boring “Get It Over With,” too, is appropriately named. One thing that Rihanna has improved on, though, is her singing. “Get It Over With” and a few others on the album demonstrate her surprising vocal ability, her voice sounding richer, smoother and much less whiny. Listen to “What Now” if you need proof.
Rihanna knows that people talk about her, and Unapologetic shows that she really doesn’t care. She has released seven albums and she’s only 24—I think she has earned the right to do what she wants. And, most importantly, she’s always trying something new with her music. Even if I don’t necessarily approve of some of her personal decisions, I respect what she’s doing as an artist. Two years ago I reviewed her album Loud and suggested that Rihanna stop the music. Unapologetic just changed my mind.