The title of Rihanna’s seventh album in seven years, Unapologetic, may be a nod to her self-consciously ‘dangerous’ persona but it is inevitably going to be taken as referring to its heavily-trailed centrepiece duet with Chris Brown. The song, Nobody’s Business, finds Rihanna declaring “You’ll always be mine, sing it to the world” while Brown coos “let’s make out in this Lexus”, while both sing that their relationship is “nobody’s business”. To fully appreciate just how foolish this is, we have to look at what has led up to it.
In November 2009, in one of her first interviews after Brown brutally assaulted her, Rihanna bravely spoke about the emotional turmoil she had experienced as a consequence of the attack. She spoke of feeling “very ashamed, angry… embarrassed… You start lying to yourself, blaming yourself.” Only 21 at the time, she spoke eloquently about her fame and its responsibilities, strikingly explaining her decision to leave Brown by pondering the message it would send to her young fans: “My selfish desire for love could result in some young girl getting killed. I could not be easy with that, responsible for that.” It was heart-rending that a very public victim of a horrendous crime should have to feel such an additional burden on her shoulders, yet as a mature and empowering response it was hugely admirable. Sadly, time has shown just how far society has to go in its responses to domestic violence, with many of Brown’s young fans throwing insults at his victim and tweeting deeply disturbing statements about how they’d be happy for him to hit them. For his part, Brown delivered an embarrassingly perfunctory apology on Larry King, released songs which seemed to blame Rihanna for his attack (Famous Girl) and adopted a juvenile, entitled victim stance blaming negative reactions on ‘haters’ and ‘devils’. Throw in homophobic tweets, very public tantrums and overwhelming self-pity and it’s difficult to view Brown as anything other than repugnant.
Rihanna’s musical response to the situation was Rated R, one of the most accomplished and astounding pop albums of the past decade. It was a complex, resonant work which did not shy away from events but took control of them. Notably, it heavily featured Rihanna’s creative input, with nine of its 13 tracks being co-written by her. This seemed not only apt but necessary for such a personal work. Unfortunately the album sold only a fraction of its blockbuster predecessor Good Girl Gone Bad and, barely 12 months later, Rihanna returned with a more commercially-friendly offering. Her career since has been one long backtrack from Rated R, with undemanding (if frequently brilliant) singles, almost constant touring and a desire for commercial dominance seemingly being the guiding raison d’être.
Of course, withdrawing from Rated R is understandable considering the circumstances of its creation. Yet 2010’s duet with Eminem, Love The Way You Lie, set alarm bells ringing with its breathy take on a deeply dysfunctional relationship which saw Dominic Monaghan and Megan Fox sexily alluding to domestic violence in its video. The subsequent years saw regular rumours of a rekindled relationship between Rihanna and Chris Brown until, earlier this year, they simultaneously released two duets: Birthday Cake and Turn Up The Music. If such a public reconciliation wasn’t troublesome enough, the countdown to their release saw Rihanna teasing her fans with clues as to the identity of her duet partner. As cynical publicity tactics go, asking your fans to guess that you’re singing with the man who previously hospitalised you is difficult to beat.
And so we come back to Nobody’s Business, with its hugely harmful implicit message that abusive relationships are private matters. It’s impossible to square with Rihanna’s previous maturity regarding the matter – certainly she should be allowed to change her mind but, given the cycle of abuse which so often characterises domestic violence, someone should have said ‘no’ to such a public statement.
Astoundingly, having just been told that their relationship is none of our business, the following Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary makes Brown’s attack its central subject. “Who knew the course of this one drive injured us fatally?” Rihanna sings, before asking “what’s love without tragedy?” The line “As long as we got each other, I’m prepared to die in the moment” stops you in your tracks, such is the disbelief that anyone involved thought it was an acceptable sentiment given the context.
These songs and the flirtation with dangerous men as some kind of transgressive thrill completely poison the record. The reggae confection of No Love Allowed finds Rihanna singing “I was flying til you knocked me to the floor” and declaring that “this man, he’s the one I’d die for”. Numb features the return of Eminem, who drops a reference to Love The Way You Lie before boasting that “the odds are imma end up in the back of a squad car by the end of tonight” while Rihanna blankly sings a refrain of “I’m going numb”. This sense of emotional trauma displays itself in a different way in the obnoxious Pour It Up, where Rihanna has “money on my mind”, only sees “dollar signs” and offers the charming lyric “Mens make your girl go down and I’ve still got my money”.
There are those who would argue that reviews should only address the music on its own terms. For what it’s worth, when you’re at Rihanna’s level you can afford the best songwriters and producers in the business and sonically the album is generally far ahead of her peers. Yet if Sia‘s Diamonds is a sultry triumph, its character and uniqueness highlights the ultimately hollow pleasures of much around it. David Guetta‘s Right Now is the worst offender, a boilerplate banger that will no doubt be a future single. Stay, featuring Mikky Ekko and co-written by the man behind Lana Del Rey’s Video Games, is better in its subtle but compelling charm while Jump (with its interpolations of Ginuwine‘s Pony) is nothing less than a brilliant pop song.
Nonetheless, to argue that the unpleasantness at the album’s core doesn’t matter is to deny that pop music matters; that it has a cultural resonance far beyond the charts. To argue this is to enable the misogyny which fuels this record, where an overwhelmingly male group of songwriters play up Rihanna as an alluring cipher, flirting with danger while staring into the void. Whatever Rihanna’s role in this album, it’s to be hoped that she doesn’t believe most of what she’s singing here. As a record it is not only misguided, it’s dangerous. We should not shy away from that.