Rihanna may be a number of things: ratchet, sassy, naive, unfiltered, brave, sexually frustrated, impulsive and foolish even. But sorry isn’t one of them. Over the course of 15 tracks, the record-breaking pop star’s seventh album, Unapologetic, finds her screaming some variation of “free your mind,” “live without regrets” or simply “fuck everything.” It’s as controversial subject-wise as it is infectious and honest. For the past three years, the world has been trying to comprehend her jagged thought process and decision-making, looking to her music for clarity. Here, the 24-year-old misfit—often classified as the reckless victim who embraces destruction—finds solace in the confusion and uses the album as a medium to present her forgiving side. After an eye-opening Oprah Winfrey interview and public reunion with her ex-boyfriend and abuser, Chris Brown, the past has peaked out from under the rug. And Rih has no problem laying her cards out.
On the surface, Unapologetic is essentially another hodgepodge Rihanna album, with enough similarities to Loud or Talk That Talk to keep the #Navy on board. But with each listen, you feel her supreme sense of liberation. There’s vocal improvement (or at the least, experimentation) in her ballads, both in tone (“Half of Me,” “Diamonds,” “Stay”) and in their ability to transport you to her emotional spaces. In the usual, sometimes vexing, Rihanna way, she achieves all this using a grab bag of genres, including ’90s R&B (“Jump” samples Ginuwine’s “Pony”), dub step, pop and a token Irie jam (consider “No Love Allowed” a less violent version of “Man Down”). The extremely sensual, Future-assisted “Loveeeee Song” pulls together ambiances of a “Rock The Boat”-era Aaliyah, her ex’s “Take You Down” and “Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex,” while the mosh-inducing “Jump” is likely to prompt spontaneous dance battles. Imagine hearing those in the club.
Contextually, Rihanna allows us to witness her ongoing sexual autonomy, first seeded on Good Girl Gone Bad. Where “Fresh Off The Runway,” “Pour It Up” and “Numb” satisfy any twerking and materialistic needs, much of the album tackles central ideas of freedom from dumped baggage (“Diamonds,” “Get It Over With”), fun and intimacy (“Pour It Up,” “Stay”) and confession (“Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary,” “Lost in Paradise”). You’ll find more repeatable than disposable songs this time around.
Track 10 is where Rih’s at her most unrepentant. The disco-driven “Nobodies Business,” featuring Chris Brown, is an album standout, but not necessarily because of how it sounds. By featuring the man who’s also the subject of the lyrics, Rihanna leaves no room for guesswork or false interpretation. The jarring song, like the couple’s first post-makeup collaboration, “Birthday Cake (Remix),” covers the history they share and refuse to let go of—it’ll irk some people.
Naturally, it leads into “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary,” the most autobiographical seven minutes on Unapologetic. It’s almost too raw in its intimacy: “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… What’s love without tragedy?” It’s here we notice Rihanna’s life could be the basis of a Shakespearean play. During its intentionally abrupt tonal transition, the honesty becomes devastating. Rih confesses that, for Chris presumably, she’s “cried tears sea-deep,” and though she wants to change for the better, needs to live in the moment, a sentiment also echoed on “Right Now.” It’s what you wanted to know, but may be sorry you asked.
U.K. singer-songwriters Adele and Emeli Sandé penned the album’s closer, “Half of Me,” which explains its candid and immediate charm. It’s the perfect ending to her saga, totally opposite from the album’s relatively shallow opener, “Fresh Off the Runway”:
You know me/I’m the life of the party
Beautiful people surround me/Everybody falling in love
Oh, you know me/Everybody knows that I’m crazy
Sticks and stones, they never break me
And I’m the type that don’t give a fuck
And that’s just the half of it
Delivered in a firm and steady voice, the track leaves us with a final memo steeped in irony: You don’t really know me. Rihanna recognizes half the fun is in figuring it out, though she’s in no way remorseful for not letting us all the way in. —Stacy-Ann Ellis (@stassi_x)