Mixed reaction from critics to Rihanna’s new “Unapologetic” album

CALIFORNIA, United States, Friday November 23, 2012 – Writing in the New York Times Magazine back in the sixties, Kenneth Tynan described a critic as “a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car”. Add the fact that public response, not critical acclaim, determines the commercial success of any project, and most reviews emerge as no more than a source of entertainment in their own right.

Loyal Rihanna fans are consequently taking the current crop of critiques of her new album with a hefty pinch of salt as they fork out for “Unapologetic”, the Barbadian recording star’s latest release, which hit the worldwide music scene the day after she bagged the Favourite Soul/R&B Album award for “Talk That Talk” at Sunday’s American Music Awards (AMA). 

Rihanna wrapped up her whirlwind “777 Tour” on Tuesday after delivering seven concerts in seven countries in seven days, to promote “Unapologetic”.

In keeping with the “seven” theme, and her “hardest working woman in show business” title, the “We Found Love” girl released her seventh studio album in seven years on November 19.

Described as a mix of club hits, personal ballads and R&B grooves, the album features several star collaborations, from the David Guetta and The-Dream produced “Right Now,” to Eminem’s rap verse on “Numb”.

The most controversial collaboration on the album is unquestionably “Nobody’s Business,” a duet with Rihanna’s old flame and much publicised former abuser Chris Brown. 

The album’s lead single, “Diamonds,” has already shot towards the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.

While some critics laud Rihanna for the diversity of sounds on the new album, others are considerably less complimentary. Here’s what they had to say, as compiled by The Hollywood Reporter:

Andrew Hampp of Billboard takes note of the album’s musical variety: “Amping up on urban, dubstep-leaning R&B and scaling back on the often awkward sex jams that populated the second half of 2011’s Talk That Talk, Unapologetic is Rihanna’s most confident, emotionally resonant work since 2009’s Rated R. There’s hard-hitting club songs (‘Phresh Out the Runway,’ ‘Pour It Up,’ the Ginuwine-sampling ‘Jump’), feel-good dance jams (David Guetta-produced ‘Right Now,’ Chris Brown duet ‘Nobody’s Business’) and a surprising abundance of heartfelt ballads (lead single ‘Diamonds,’ ‘Stay’ featuring Mikky Ekko, the confessional suite ‘Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary’ and bonus track ‘Half Of Me’), all of which showcase Rihanna’s voice in ways the listener hasn’t heard before. Like previous Rihanna projects, Unapologetic is destined to crank out at least five singles over the next 12 months (or until it’s time for the next album, anyway).”

Randall Roberts of the L.A. Times criticizes the album collaborations, saying: “Half the record, in fact, features hints of dubstep. Others draw on the ‘chopped and screwed’ sounds of Houston and good old-fashioned dance pop. Featuring slow, down-pitched snares and a crawling momentum, the most notable of these, ‘Numb,’ is a duet with rapper Eminem, who’s repaying Rihanna for the ‘Love the Way You Lie’ chorus that revived his career. But this is not that, and the following lyric should explain why. 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.”

Roberts also finds fault with Brown’s participation in the album: “Trouble arrives within ‘Nobody’s Business,’ a duet between pop singers Rihanna and her 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 convicted abuser and the woman he 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 negative into a positive.”

Notes Jon Caramanica of The New York Times: “Maybe her true art isn’t singing, or appearing impenetrable, but rather playing with public expectations. She’s a brat with the tools of a pop star at her disposal to make her mischief. Keeping people guessing, or grumbling, is just another way of holding them at bay. That’s what makes it so much more notable when she lets loose, drops her guard and just sings unvarnished. ‘What Now’ begins with plain piano but gets to bombast by the first chorus. Still, Rihanna is doing some of her most direct, ambitious singing here. It’s the album’s one real purge, and a sign of a pulse beneath the armor.”

Allison Stewart of The Washington Post disagrees, commenting that: “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… 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.”

Katie Hasty of Hitfix comments: “The album seems to be catwalking off in a half dozen different directions, starting with infernal headache ‘Fresh Off the Runway.’ This album could have kicked off with any other track — SERIOUSLY, ANY OTHER TRACK — and made more of an impact than this colorless boaster of explicit lyricism. But to make Unapologetic to appear without apologies, there’s a slavish tromp through it; the new so-so single ‘Diamonds’; the aforementioned ‘Numb’ with Eminem; and exasperating non-song ‘Pour It Up,’ a Mike WiLL-produced experiment which is far more aimless and depressing than its title implies.”

Christina Lee of Idolator says: “At first listen, Unapologetic feels a series of pop-at-the moment cash grabs: In her version of rap posturing, the Mike Will Made It-produced ‘Pour It Up,’ Rihanna crows of her celebrity-earned assets (‘Who cares how you haters feel? Call Jay up and close the deal’) as if she’s studied 2Chainz‘s melodies. In highlight ‘Right Now,’ Rihanna takes turns with David Guetta in building neon-tinted momentum, between her singing and his churning bass line. And in ‘Jump,’ she lifts the chorus from Ginuwine‘s seductive  ‘Pony’ while navigating through these landmines of bass drops. As unlisted guest Kanye West proclaims, ‘It’s the rise and the fall! It’s the rise and the fall!’ — and it really is. That mode of smashin’ and stuntin’ and swaggin’ should be familiar to even the most casual pop listener. This time, however, Rihanna isn’t leading the party — she’s singing as if she’s entered a venue filled with everyone but the one person she wants most. In ‘Jump,’ she sounds sullen because she’s spotted the man she once had, but he’s with other girls. And, despite what Future’s warbling may otherwise convey, ‘Loveeeee Song’ is all about self-consciousness, with the eerie refrain, ‘I don’t want to give you the wrong impression.’ Unapolgetic’s one moment of pure bliss is also its biggest talking point: ‘Nobody’s Business,’ in which Chris Brown joins Rihanna in a duet seemingly inspired by Michael Jackson’s earliest hits — Breezy’s comfort zone. Rihanna laps up every syllable like a kitten to milk, even though her own chorus coincidentally recalls that of Billie Holiday’s classic, devastating song about domestic abuse.”

Jon Dolan of Rolling Stone comments: “Chris Brown only shows up once on Rihanna’s seventh LP, during the defiant ‘Nobody’s Business.’ But the abusive ex she took back is like a co-writer throughout, sort of the way Germany was a co-writer on World War II: ‘I was flying till you knocked me to the floor,’ she sings on ‘No Love Allowed.’ Unapologetic’s stark, shadowy R&B is confrontationally honest and sung within an inch of its life, whether she’s turning a strip-club anthem into a declaration of independence (‘Pour It Out’) or pleading at the piano (‘Stay’). When she sings, ‘I’m prepared to die in the moment,’ on ‘Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary,’ a clichéd line pulses with real terror and impossible resolve.”

Huffington Post’s Smokey Fontaine praises the album, calling it, “A moment in pop music where the artist set up to look the best, sound the best and actually be the best, lives up to the hyperbole and wins the prize. The biggest star on the planet hasn’t been chilling under that glass ceiling of expectation. Kinetic and musically varied, the album blasts the sounds of global, post-mod youth culture through every track. She creates an emotional soundtrack not of some affected, stupid-rich celeb, but of a 24-year old survivor who rocks and laughs and cries. Three years ago, no one would have paid attention to a beautiful piano-ballad like ‘Stay.’ Not because of the events we all witnessed, but because of how honest and emotionally-connected her vocals are.” Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)