Rihanna’s music has never been particularly cheerful, and her last few records have mainly dealt with the dark side of love, sex, and fame. But despite all that, it comes as a surprise that her new album Unapologetic is so incredibly bleak. Even songs that are ostensibly upbeat, like the YOLO club banger “Right Now,” betray a powerful feeling of melancholy, self-destruction, or disconnection. It’s actually kind of a drag to listen to a lot of it, but in a good way. It’s raw and intense, and probably a lot more personal and upsetting than it was intended to be, at least in the sense that it comes closer to the unsettling emotional tone of, say, Nirvana’s In Utero or Cat Power’s Moon Pix than the sleek dance-pop that has made her one of the biggest stars of the past decade. This might sound like an exaggeration, but I’ve had to force myself to get through more than five songs in a row because the music was bumming me out too much.
A lot of pop music is “sad,” but it’s a different thing to get across a feeling of being genuinely troubled, confused, lonely, and alienated. There are moments on Unapologetic that are actually scary, because it’s just sort of hard to deal with someone sounding totally dead inside. “Numb,” a collaboration with Eminem, is mostly just Rihanna repeating the phrase “I’m going numb, I’m going numb” over an icy, hypnotic groove that’s about half dubstep, half dancehall. Eminem’s verses are almost entirely disconnected from what she’s singing, and the track feels a bit like being frozen in place with Rihanna as the world goes on around her.
The numbness carries over to other tracks too. She sings a big chunk of Ginuwine’s “Pony” on “Jump,” and she sounds so cold and dead-eyed that one of the sexiest songs of the 1990s comes out feeling oddly aloof. There’s no flirtation in her rendition, just an invitation for a transaction. Rihanna sings a lot about sex, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the sexuality of Unapologetic comes off as very mechanical and heartless.
There’s a flip side to this coldness. Rihanna has had trouble selling ballads in the past, but she sounds natural and fully committed to the slower, more overtly melancholy cuts on Unapologetic. She’s come off as too guarded in the past, or maybe a touch too melodramatic to compensate for a natural chilliness in her voice, but she conveys genuine warmth and vulnerability on “Diamonds,” “Stay,” and “What Now.” These songs aren’t quite as compelling as ecstatic up-tempo hits like “Only Girl in the World” and “We Found Love,” but they show signs of real technical growth.
It’s sort of rattling to hear Rihanna get this earnest on record, and it’s even more potent when these tracks share space with songs that are explicitly about shutting down and burying all of this feeling. Unapologetic seems very bipolar, and you come away from it feeling like you’ve spent an hour being tossed around between intense agony and utter blankness. It’s hard to listen to this without thinking about Rihanna as a person, and wondering exactly how real these feelings are for her, and how much of it is artistic license and exaggeration. She’s a huge celebrity, and we know a lot about her personal life, so it’s not difficult to read between the lines and see how all of this fits into her life as we know it. The assumption that this is true to her life is a lot of what makes Unapologetic such a difficult record to handle. It overloads your empathy; it makes you care about her as a person more than you might expect. You hear the album, and you just want to give her a hug or something.