It’s hard not to come to Unapologetic without preconceptions, and for its part, the album scarcely bothers trying to subvert them. So, no surprise: It’s a mega bucks pop monster that cannibalises every facet of modern dance music and bloats it up to stadium filling results. There’s hits, there’s turds,there’s songs about sex, money, sex, love, money and sex and money and sex and there’s literally no style of modern music Rihanna won’t have a crack at.
What’s interesting in this mud flinging approach is the way previously underground genres are now so quickly assimilated into the mainstream. Whilst every poppet from here to Kei$ha has crow barred a vulgar dubstep drop into their middle 8, Unapologetic flirts with styles that your average teeny fan is going to be blissfully ignorant of- the frenetic snare rattle and slo mo vocals of trap, the bit mangled synth grinds of glitch house, even the dreamy 80s revivalism of chillwave get chucked into the blender. In many ways the record sounds the death knell of underground dance as a melodic concept. Unless bedroom producers are trying to make something genuinely alienating, they are guaranteed to find their sound consumed, smoothed out and pro tooled into the charts within a week of it making any sort of ‘cool’ impact. It’s the aural equivalent of Top Shop trend hunters ripping off small scale designers, repackaging, mass producing, and using their huge clout to crush the competition. That’s capitalism folks! It’s a particularly information aged phenomenon, and as sinister as you want it to be.
For example: The track Jump squeezes in moombahton Dutch rave blips, dubstep half speed snare smashes, a chorus nicked off Ginuwine’s RnB classic Pony and the bolshy, anthemic chords of trance. I’m happy to bet everyone in this room a score that it’ll be a future single, and a massive one at that. It’s ruthlessly efficient, EQ’d to bang from huge club PAs and tinny mobile phone speakers alike. There’s not much going on in the way of emotion, and even the lyrics are recycled, but in the short term, it’s a gold plated money spinner, and, yeah, it’s kinda fun. The question is; what happens in the long term when the beast runs out of food? When the young producers give up innovating, sick of seeing their sounds bastardized with no remuneration? Does pop move onto new pastures, or does it continue to amalgamate ever wilder styles in the hope of snaring a hit? I would have though country rap rave step was a crap joke till I heard Cher Lloyd’s Swagger Jagger…
Anyway, back to Unapologetic. It’s 15 tracks long. There are harder dancefloor bombs, and slightly ludicrous (albeit enjoyable) ballads. Chris Brown’s spectre looms over the lyrics like a violent, potty mouthed ghost, and he pops up in the tattooed flesh to duet with Rihanna on the misleadingly titled 90s dance pop jam Nobody’s Business. Again, I’d be lying if I said the track wasn’t incredibly good at fulfilling its remit- it’s got a totally infectious groove, and it’s controversial enough to get tongues wagging. I’m not entirely sure how to react to a domestic abuser singing that what he gets up to with his missus ‘ain’t nobody’s business’, but I suspect it’s inclusion is a cynically successful ploy to outrage liberal sensibilities, and, crucially, generate the hype required to sell shit loads of records.
For me the oddest moment comes on Pour It Up, where Rihanna sings the virtues of the almighty dollar in such a numbed, emotionless manner that the track would make a perfect fit for the Scarface soundtrack- it’s got the kind of empty, grasping materialism that define the Tony Montana character, and sounds custom built for neon skies, cocaine nights, and hollow hearts. If RiRi genuinely feels this much ennui towards her presumably vast fortune, maybe it’s time she took a break and got a hobby, cos she sure don’t sound like she’s having fun chucking cash in the air in strip clubs.
So, to conclude, this is a good pop RnB album. You get what you paid for and then some. There’s absolutely zero emotional core, and a fistful of catchy dance numbers, by numbers. The pop prerogative ensures that every track bludgeons along and subtlety is chucked over board loooong ago. Taken on its own terms it’s a success. As a wider mirror to an increasingly rapacious culture, hell bent on self-consumption, it’s a fascinating period piece. As an artwork that will illuminate your inner thoughts, it does pretty much fuck all. Here’s to hearing it in a discothèque this weekend. 6/10