Bad girl Rihanna grows on her 7th CD but keeps an edge on ‘Unapologetic’

NOW BOARDING | Rihanna wrapped up her whirlwind international 777 Tour in New York City’s Webster Hall, promoting her seventh studio album, ‘Unapologetic.’ (Photo courtesy Rich Lopez)

RICH LOPEZ  | Contributing Writer

Earlier this month, I was among the cadre that joined Rihanna for her 777 Tour — seven concerts, seven days, seven countries. The intention was to hype up the release of her seventh album, Unapologetic … and make a splash on the charts and with her fans. The plan worked: Unapologetic debuted at No. 1. But promo aside, was the album worth the trouble?

Well, yeah.

Whether seven is lucky or just a number, it’s all good for RiRi’s latest. This is the album we’ve been waiting for since her major breakthrough, Good Girl Gone Bad, in 2007. Averaging a staggering album per year since 2009’s Rated R, Rihanna has been dropping hits with abandon. 2010’s Loud and last year’s Talk That Talk were almost mashups, with cohesion that struggled despite strong singles. Somehow, Unapologetic shows the grace and patience of an album years in the making even though she began recording it in June.

She pulls off a solid record despite the troubling opener “Fresh off the Runway.” Skip that mess and head to its lead single, second track “Diamonds.” Here, Rihanna blossoms into more than she’s ever been. (It doesn’t hurt that the Norwegian team StarGate and lesbian singer Sia co-wrote this stunner.) The song is leaps and bounds ahead of any of Ri’s previous work and also keeps away from her usual tone (slightly self-absorbed) or intent on displaying her swagga-tude. Instead, she matures into womanhood here, delivering fantastic vocals runs over an emotional soundscape.

Contributors at this level push the album above the hardness of her previous catalog, yet Rihanna is far from absent. She executive produced and co-wrote 11 of the 14 tracks on the regular edition (if you go for the deluxe, you’re getting remixes of “Diamonds,” the song “Half of Me” and a concert DVD) and exudes confidence in her performance. Sometime she goes a little Beyonce, like on “What Now,” but she’s gained a grasp of who she is and her intention on Unapologetic isn’t to be defiant so much as it is to be focused.

The tone stays even although the songs range from electronica-tinged tracks to sultry ballads. What’s missing is a strong dance track a la “Only Girl (In the World)” or “We Found Love,” that usually anchors a Rihanna album. “Right Now” with David Guetta, while fine, lacks power. She buoys the disc with impressive numbers that straddle the chill side of pop and the sophisticated side of EDM.

The misses are few but spectacular, such as the ridiculously titled “Loveeeee Song” with Future. The song is his while Rihanna pops in with a few vocals, but it’s far more interesting when she’s in on this quiet storm. The song could be ultra sexy if Future’s vocals weren’t AutoTune’d until he sounds like a broken muffler. She gets to her Barbadian roots in “No Love Allowed” with island music flavored beats that sound gratuitous and out-of-place.

Rihanna’s releases post-Good Girl have been eclipsed by her time with Chris Brown and all that comes with that. He shows up here on the forgettable “Nobody’s Business,” but hopefully her declaration of sing it to the world / always be my boy / always be your girl / ain’t nobody’s business can settle the fact that she and Brown are clearly gonna be an item and we can move on.

Rihanna re-teams with Eminem on “Numb” to magic. Seductive and sophisticated, it merges eccentric sounds with Eminem’s cocky rhyming that is borderline silly, but still keeps its cool. She flips from slinky into delicacy with the ballad “Stay.”

While I have no idea what she’s singing about in “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary,” she injects drama with finesse to the seven-minute epic. She kept away from minute long interludes like last year’s “Birthday Cake” or Rated R’s “Mad House” which were just confusing. Now she’s growing into giving us weighty tunes that have cohesion with each other instead of a playlist.

Fans packed small venues for Rihanna’s 777 Tour and cheered for her big hits when she sang “Umbrella” or “Talk That Talk,” but they relished her new stuff. Rihanna is one of the biggest pop stars at the moment, yet it’s hard to pin down why. After her breakthrough, she just pounded the radio with solid hits but forgettable albums. Then she seemed to appear on everyone else’s albums in between like Nicki Minaj, Drake and Coldplay. But Unapologetic is just smart enough to give us reason to believe that Rihanna, as a solo artist, deserves to be on that A-list mantle and hopefully an indicator of stronger releases to come.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 30, 2012.