“Unapologetic,” Rihanna’s seventh album in seven years — and her last before a long break, if she’s smart — is a meditation on love in the age of restraining orders.
It’s a messy, blank-eyed, occasionally appealing train wreck on which a lot of time is spent bemoaning the attention paid to the difficulties in Rihanna’s personal life while simultaneously exploiting them. (Most notably this concerns her relationship with her abuser, Chris Brown, with whom she appears to be reunited.) “I was flying ’til you knocked me to the floor,” Rihanna coos on the neo-reggae track “No Love Allowed.” Or: “I pray that love don’t strike twice,” on the otherwise moving “Love Without Tragedy.”
Throw in a reference to calling 911, and it becomes clear that the makers of “Unapologetic” are trolling listeners, as if to distract from how listless Rihanna sounds, how shopworn the beats feel. The first half of the disc is weighted with club tracks, the second with milder R&B songs and some genuinely lovely ballads, but Rihanna’s always-on recording method is bearing diminishing returns. The dance tracks aren’t as booming as on past releases and the hooks are less hooky.
In its worst moments, “Unapologetic” feels threadbare. The affectless “Pour It Up” is a statistical rarity — a strip club ode from a woman — that’s as sour and weary as the male versions are joyful. (“I still got my money/Who cares how you haters feel?” asks zombie Rihanna, before shilling for her perfume.) The electro-stoner ballad “Numb” is a collaboration with Eminem, who contributes lines such as “I’m the butt police/And I’m looking at your rear,” and somehow manages to sound like the album’s sole sensible person.
There are some highlights: On the piano-based weepie “Stay,” Rihanna displays a greater vocal range than she has ever shown; “Jump,” which references Ginuwine’s “Pony,” is a monster in the making. Also shamefacedly great: “Nobody’s Business,” a duet with walking bad decision Brown that pays homage to Bessie Smith’s legendary 1920s domestic-violence apology “ ’Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.” In its defiant emphasis on smart women and potentially fatal choices, “Unapologetic” may be wrongheaded, but it’s nothing new.