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Review: Rihanna’s ‘Unapologetic’ shines light on past drama

By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times –

RIHANNA “Unapologetic” (Island/ Def Jam) 2 stars

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Only four years after the singer Rihanna broke through with her mega-hit “Umbrella,” the brand Rihanna has firmly established itself. The brand has quarterly deadlines to hit, profit margins to tally, employs highly skilled professionals to have meetings on the comings and goings of one of the world’s preeminent pop stars. And when the seductress from Barbados has a fresh product to launch, as she does with her new album, “Unapologetic,” the machine runs in overdrive.

Were all this effort in service of a new fast-food burger launch — “Unapologetic” is the aural equivalent — the pitch might read, “More defiant, now featuring dubstep!” Which is to say, while the new Rihanna record may be at times sonically exciting, what resides beneath the new bass-heavy, Skrillex-inspired music is still a fast-food burger, one with a lot of extra sauce and disturbing ingredients.

Said trouble arrives all over the place but most obviously within “Nobody’s Business,” a duet between Rihanna and ex-boyfriend Chris Brown. And anyone who’s been following their tempestuous relationship — it got violent the night before the 2009 Grammy Awards — can fill in the blanks.

A love song, “Nobody’s Business” is like a sad inversion of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Instead of singing about connection, true love and wanting to shout it to the world, the song features a confessed abuser and the woman he violently assaulted asking everyone to shut up and leave them alone.

She and Brown sing these words as a duet, which negates their entire argument; it feels like a pose that only invites a new round of media attention, something that both had to understand when they were singing it in the studio. It’s a little sickening, because for the first time since the incident, her addressing the complicated issue feels not like a defense of love but a marketing maneuver, a way of turning a beat-down into cash.

That her brand and label have unveiled this work with nary a mention of the record’s substance is equally disturbing, as though hiding the underlying themes of “Unapologetic” within sexy videos and vacuous advertisements will make Island/Def Jam employees less complicit as they’re marketing it.

She follows “Nobody’s Business” with “Love Without Tragedy/ Mother Mary,” prompting more confusion. After just informing her listeners that there’s nothing more to say, she seems to dredge up that fateful night in the song’s opening verse. “Who knew the course of this one drive / injured us fatally / You took the best years of my life / I took the best years of your life.” Then she goes further: “Felt like love struck me in the night / I prayed that love don’t strike twice.”

It’s tough to stomach, hearing her describe being struck by what she calls love; its usage mirrors the refrain of the Crystals’ 1962 anachronism “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).” The record is peppered with similar allusions to the incident.

Granted, a contrary argument can be made that Rihanna is merely shining light on the darkness, which is one responsibility of an artist. By exploring love’s many conflicting emotions — some of which can indeed be dangerous — she’s providing necessary air.

That argument, though, assumes we’re talking about art here and not commerce. Another nausea-inducing track, “Pour It Up,” suggests that the latter is the main goal of “Unapologetic.” The opening line — “Throw it up, watch it all fall out” — seems like an ode to getting sick, in fact, until it becomes clear that Rihanna is singing about money, strip clubs, doing shots of tequila and “making it rain” with bills.

These lyrical turns poison her seventh studio album, a title whose meaning reeks of defensiveness instead of defiance, even while musically, Rihanna has evolved into one of the more forward-thinking pop divas. She’s gone all-in on dubstep, the bass-heavy subgenre featuring wobbly synthetic noises and big, noisy bass-drops.

It’s amid this wobble and flow that Rihanna is at her best, and the art part of the equation is most evident. For better or worse, Rihanna’s harnessing of EDM beats set the tone for much of the ecstatic dance pop of the last few years. She was harnessing electro and progressive house beats in 2008, and her success led fellow hitmakers, male and female — including Brown, Usher, Katy Perry and Ke$ha — down a similar path.

One of the most interesting tracks, “Numb,” sees British EDM team Chase & Status offer the kind of reggae-tinted downbeat rhythms that made “Man Down” the best track from “Loud.” The track features Eminem, who’s repaying Rihanna for the “Love the Way You Lie” chorus that revived his career.

Like much of the record, however, it’s a mess lyrically, and Eminem’s verse is a different kind of disturbing.

After becoming a metaphorical cop in “Numb,” Eminem describes himself like this: “I’m the siren that you hear / I’m the butt police, and I’m looking at your rear, rear, rear.”

Eminem, one of the greatest rappers in the genre’s history, wrote that line. Rihanna can be as unapologetic as she feels she needs to be and can support Brown all she wants. But when she starts dragging down Eminem, somebody needs to atone.

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