Sunday, December 2, 2012

album review: 'unapologetic' by rihanna

Let me take you back to 1999.

Man, the pop landscape was different then! Bubblegum pop and boy bands ruled. The first sparks of the post-grunge wastelands were forming from the abrupt collapse of ska and the second resurgence of pop-punk. And hip-hop was, to be blunt, light and airy and generally stupid as hell.

Enter Marshall Mathers III, otherwise known as Slim Shady, otherwise known as Eminem. After his smash major debut with the demented Slim Shady LP, he was looking to strike a darker tone with his next release, one that both confronted his critics and haters head-on but one that also dove into darker, bleaker, more terrifying neuroses he had kept bottled up for some time. And one of the darkest of those neuroses was his critically damaged relationship with his girlfriend/wife/ex-wife Kim. To say the relationship was ruined completely beyond repair is probably understating it, but Eminem drove the final nails in the coffin with a track that scandalized and shocked a nation of listeners: 'Kim'.

'Kim' is the sixteenth track on The Marshall Mathers LP, and by then you've seen Eminem confront plenty of his personal demons, but when it comes to 'Kim', there's a whole other level of hatred and rage drenching this track. Eminem's voice cracks and breaks as he screams epithets and venom through tears, and at that point you can't help but feel a sick sort of dread as you know that there isn't just hatred here. No, if there's a song that ever encapsulated the concept of the blinding blend of hatred and obsessive love, it's 'Kim'. It's clear in this song that there's absolutely no one in the right, not Kim and certainly not Eminem. It's the domestic dispute from hell, and the most shocking thing about it is the niggling chill that races down your spine as you realize that somewhere, at some point, fragments of that screaming argument and domestic violence may have actually happened

'Kim' is a really hard listen, but I recommend all music critics looking to test their mettle and stomachs listen to it at least once. It sure as hell was polarizing, raising even more protests as people saw 'Kim' as all the more evidence of Eminem's dangerous misogyny. Things degenerated even further when Eminem performed the song at a concert and then brutally stabbed a blow-up doll likeness of 'Kim' in the song, an act that I've considered one of the worst possible things Eminem ever could have done. While he had threatened violence towards plenty of people on other tracks, 'Kim' was different. That song was personal, and while Eminem has made his career off of airing his dirty laundry in public, 'Kim' was a different extreme. And I'm not the only one who thought so - Kim herself attempted suicide by slitting her wrists at the end of that show.

The point is that, as one of the most terrifying and gut-churning songs that I've ever listened to in my life (and I've listened to a fair amount of horrorcore rap and death metal, just to qualify this), 'Kim' somehow still succeeds as a performance art piece. It's a vile, horrifying piece, let me make that explicitly clear, but it works because there are layers and complexity and Eminem does not hold back, making one of the most open and revealing songs of his career. Do I enjoy it? Fuck no. But I can't hate it because for all of its grotesque, sickening reality, it works.

So when I listen to the two songs on Rihanna's Unapologetic, 'Nobody's Business' and 'Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary', two songs that directly explore her relationship with Chris Brown, why don't I feel that it works nearly as well, and is thus far easier to despise? Why would some people think I'm giving Eminem a free pass (which I'm not, by the way) while dropping the hammer down on both Rihanna and Brown?

Well, part of this has to do with Rihanna herself. I've never really considered myself a fanboy of Rihanna's material, but I will acknowledge that prior to 2009, she was releasing some great material. 'Take A Bow', 'Don't Stop The Music', 'Pon De Replay', ‘Disturbia’, hell, I even kind of liked ‘Umbrella’ and ‘Shut Up And Drive’. But after a certain incident in 2009 regarding a certain asshole who I’ll deal with in a few minutes, Rihanna’s music took an awkward turn to say the least. Her material, at least for the first few singles, tended further and further towards explicitly sexual material (‘Rude Boy’, ‘S&M’), but there was a calculated edge to the delivery that completely stripped away all of the authenticity and made those songs less than enjoyable, particularly when viewed in the context of the assault.

And as much as Rihanna has made it clear that that time in her life was something she would prefer to move away from, certain artistic and public actions on her part have made it kind of hard to forget. As much as I’d like to dive headfirst and go into great detail regarding the sadly fascinating case of Rihanna’s artistic career, I think for brevity I’ll stick to the major highlights with this case. For starters, she performed songs like ‘Russian Roulette’, which was effectively a suicide song in the bleakest sense of the word. Then she did ‘Love The Way you Lie’ with Eminem, which was explicitly a song about domestic abuse and a broken relationship. Now I’ll admit that song did wear out its welcome, but it did work as an exploration of both performers’ domestic lives. But on the counterpoint, you got songs like ‘S&M’ and ‘Rude Boy’, with references that tried to fetishize violence – and frankly, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t quite divorce it from the facts of Rihanna’s previous years, and it made those songs deeply uncomfortable to listen to.

The next wave of songs from Rihanna was a slew of party songs – songs that I should stress I never really liked all that much. To me, it was a matter of tone – songs like ‘We Found Love’ and ‘Cheers’, particularly with their washed out, drab, half-hearted synths, just felt empty and hollow, as if Rihanna was trying to fill a void in her life with the empty glam and glitz of partying, and instead of making the parties feel fun or crazy (like, say, Ke$ha), the parties were just hollow and dull. It wasn’t even a thing like Lady Gaga’s ‘Just Dance’, where the good night finally transitions into the awful night, because it was clear they were having some sort of fun. But to me, it felt like the sort of empty, vapid ‘fun’ that you only find when you’ve drunk and smoked yourself into an absolute stupor – and forgive me for saying this, but that sort of fun gets old fast. The fact Rihanna threw herself into it, both in her music and in reality, suggested that she was seeking some sort of blacked-out peace and resolution – and she was trying to get it from a bottle. And while that isn’t healthy in the slightest, I do understand it.

And then Rihanna got back together with Chris Brown.

Yeah, I'm not even attempting to touch the rationale of that with a forty-foot pole. I don’t feel comfortable questioning the choices and actions of an abuse victim, particularly considering I don’t really have a firm grasp on what the relationship is like outside of their music and whatever paparazzi feed I happen to spot. I do, however, feel fairly confident in saying that Chris Brown is a hack, a dumbass and a massive fucking tool, so I really don’t understand what the hell Rihanna might see in him, so much so that the two collaborate and that he gets a full duet with her on her newest album. And I do feel confident in saying that she sure as hell isn't setting a positive example for her fans that might be in analogous situations.

And with that, we come to Unapologetic,the uncomfortably-titled mess of Rihanna's newest album. To be honest, I was going to shelve this review after taking a look at Warrior (a far better album by a far more interesting pop star), but I do have some considerable rancor reserved for some people responsible for this album, and here's my opportunity to vent some of that bile.

First, let's deal with the music itself, and like Chris Brown, the music is the least interesting thing about Rihanna's body of work, and Unapologetic is no exception. If anything it's worse, because Rihanna seems to have completely stopped giving a shit. Her singing is more lifeless than normal, and with the dreary, sloppy synth work, it sounds like nobody cared when they put this album together. And if there is one thing that will utterly kill my enjoyment of an album, it's this - if you don't give a damn about the music you're making, why the hell should I?

It doesn't help matters that the guest stars are universally completely worthless. Eminem's verse on 'Numb' is one of the crappiest things he's done in a while, and Future just comes across as exceedingly creepy on his song. And while Chris Brown acquits himself decently on his duet track, his presence and the lyrics both make me uncomfortably aware that I don't want to hear this fucking shithead sing another goddamn note. You know it's a problem when the only guest star on the album who doesn't suck is David Guetta, and he only redeems the track he's on by being bland and boring. Well, okay, Mikky Ekko isn't terrible either, but he's such an non-entity on his track that I completely forgot he existed until I double-checked the album list.

And on the topic of instrumentation, I don't know whose bright idea it was to take the most dismal and depressing synths they could find from the darkwave movement of the mid-80s and pair them with the worst overproduction since Born This Way. And while I will admit they both completely fit the context and style of the album, it's still a crushingly unpleasant experience to listen through. At best, it's bland, the strongest points being the rollicking 'No Love Allowed' and the loud but droning 'Lost In Paradise'. At worst, it's actively grating on the nerves, completely shattering any coherence of album flow. Now, granted, Rihanna has never been an 'album artist', but if I'm being completely honest, I don't see singles on this album getting significant airplay, simply because the majority of the album is incredibly token and boring.

The lyrics also don't help matters, and while Rihanna's music has never been commended for having good lyrics under any stretch of the mind, this album reaches new lows just by having the lyrics sound awkward and clunky. It's amateurish songwriting, and in comparison to considerably sharper work from acts like Ke$ha that at least try to be interesting, the album is just a complete bland slog.

And while I got angry at Taylor Swift's terrible message-mongering, it is significantly worse with Unapologetic, because it stands as a terrible testament to the crippling damage that domestic abuse can have on a person's psyche - because at this point, it's the only explanation I have for why Rihanna agreed to this. The twisted version of Stockholm Syndrome that is portrayed on Unapologetic, coupled with the iciness of the production and Rihanna's weakest vocal performance yet, presents the diametric opposite of messages promoted by pop stars that want to be inspirational, particularly in the face of hardship. She doesn't appear energetic or interesting or even all that sexy, which were often the sole redeeming graces of her lower-quality work in recent years. 

To be blunt, it felt like I was listening to an audiobook of The Surrendered Wife, and the feeling of sick queasiness and unease just wouldn't go away as I went through dreary track after track. This is not an album about strong, confident women, and it sure as hell wasn't made by strong, confident women. It's the sort of album statement I expect would have Pink and Beyonce spraying fireballs, because not only is it a step backwards, it's a leap straight into a dumpster full of used surgical equipment.

You see, here's the problem that's analogous to Taylor Swift's - Rihanna to some extent is viewed by her fans as a role model, a celebrity to be idolized, but unlike Miss Swift, she was a victim that rose to greater fame and fortune. That sort of story can be inspirational and gripping, like the way Tina Turner fought to reclaim her career after the abuses of Ike. And when Rihanna releases an album which is essentially a resigned white flag as she goes back to Chris Brown, she actively encourages regressive cultural biases that progressive feminists have been working decades to overthrow. And given the monotonous flow and style of the album, it has the precise feel and texture of music used during hypnotic brainwashing, and in comparison to the third-wave feminist Molotov cocktail that is Ke$ha's Warrior, it's a tedious, insulting chore to get through.

And here's the other point: Rihanna didn't write this album. I don't know what her contributions to it were, but suffice it to say she only has writing credits on maybe half of the songs, and in no case does she have sole credits. And while that's understandable in today's modern pop scene, it's also extremely uncomfortable to see this many people continuing to exploit the public's view of Rihanna in order to milk the controversy and drive up sales. The fact that she's complicit at all in this album's creation is uncomfortable, but the amount of borderline-exploitative material here is damn near inexcusable. And the worst part of it all is that I get the feeling Rihanna's handlers weren't just ignoring the controversy of her lyrics and the context in which her music exists, but actively playing it up for greater publicity. It's sickening.

In the end, this album doesn't just feel cheap, lazy, astoundingly corporate, and boring as all hell - it's the sort of nauseating mediocrity that reinforces the worst possible stereotypes about pop starlets, and provides plenty of terrible evidence what set of values the authors of these songs hold and want to sell to us. In that way, it makes the music not even feel real, like it's coming from a place of actual sincerity and heart - and when it does, you can't help but know that it was driven by exploitative, manipulative hacks who want to see how long they can rake in the cash off of Rihanna's personal life. This doesn't even stoop to having the gravitas and sick reality of Eminem's 'Kim' or even 'Love The Way You Lie'. No, Unapologetic alternates between being boring as fuck and offensive - or, to put it in other words, it's an exploitation movie with CGI blood and plastic tits. 

You know, the shitty kind of exploitation movie.

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