When you’re famous enough to fly 150 people around the world in a personalized aircraft to watch you perform essentially the same show for a week straight, as Rihanna did on her whirlwind 777 tour (seven shows, seven countries, seven crazy nights), your brand of pop celebrity is such that any actual songs are an afterthought.
Unapologetic, Rihanna’s seventh album, works primarily as a means of exploring and expanding on the performer’s real-life narrative—or rather, the narrative the public has projected onto her. The tracks are split fairly evenly between A-lister braggadocio (“Phresh out the Runway,” the booze-blurred baller anthem “Pour It Up,” in which Rihanna does her best Drake impersonation), and forbidden-love heartache (the soggy piano ballads “Stay” and “What Now”). There’s her collaboration with Chris Brown, in which the pair trade lines about making out in a Lexus, over a soulful house groove that sounds like a Masters at Work b-side; it’s a slick tune, one that evokes (and samples) peak-period Michael Jackson, but it’s hard to hear it as anything other than a deliberate stunt, aimed to trigger umpteen indignant hashtags.
The best songs are ever so slightly off-kilter. “Numb” finds Eminem letting loose over a woozy dub beat and a hall-of-mirrors chorus of Rihannas who intone “I’m goin’ numb” over and over. On “Loveeeeeee Song,” the singer trades romantic power-play cards with Future, a dude whose digitally tweaked voice is the sonic equivalent of CGI bullet time. And on “Jump,” she adapts Ginuwine’s “Pony,” coming correct with the hypersexual bravado that rippled through last year’s Talk That Talk.
Even if we know none of this brings us any closer to the “real” Rihanna, the urge to read volumes into her songs is overwhelming, which is why 100-plus journalists who know better will still get on a press-baiting Boeing 777, and why the most banal tracks here, like current hit “Diamonds,” will be chart-topping, million-selling hits.
Playlist picks “Numb,” “Loveeeeeee Song,” “No Love Allowed”