In hindsight, Rihanna’s release of four diverse albums in the span of as many years was taken for granted. After her seventh studio album, Unapologetic, pop’s resident bad girl took a hiatus between releases – which is another chapter of its own. Released on November 19, 2012, Unapologetic would mark a thrilling conclusion to a stunning creative run.
One of the most impressive publicity stunts in music
While promoting Loud in 2010, Rihanna made an appearance on BET’s music video countdown show, 106 & Park. There she described her fanbase (Rihanna Navy) as “unapologetic”, prophesying the name of her next album.
Two years later, Rihanna would stage one of the most impressive publicity stunts in music history, the 777 Tour. A seven-day trek, with seven shows in as many days and countries, and 150 journalists in tow, the whirlwind press junket was an endurance test for those who couldn’t keep up with Rihanna’s grueling schedule. It also served to underline the brilliance of her live performances.
A rare display of vulnerability
During the 777 Tour, Rihanna would perform her No. 1 hit, and the era’s defining ballad, “Diamonds,” penned by singer-turned-hitmaker Sia. While Rihanna’s voice had become an influential force in pop itself, Sia’s throaty singing style ended up coloring Rihanna’s delivery on the track. “Diamonds” instantly went No. 1 and remains one of the best-selling singles of all time.
Even as Rihanna influenced a wave of R&B singers who emulated her vocal style and delivery, she still had to defend herself against claims that her voice didn’t stack up against the more powerful vocalists in the field. Cut to “Stay,” another ballad on Unapologetic. Over a few piano chords, Rihanna delivers one of her most emotional and vulnerable performances to date, featuring guest vocals by Mikky Ekko.
The music video was a far cry from the tough persona Rihanna usually presents in her videos. Naked and alone in a bathtub, the singer reveals more through her music than any interview could hope to capture.
A confident space
Unapologetic opens with “Phresh Out The Runway,” a fashion anthem that finds Rihanna boasting about her rise in the fashion world. The David Guetta co-produced track sounds tailor-made for the runway, as Rihanna asks, “How could you be so hood, but you so phuckin’ pop?”, slyly nodding to her own crossover appeal. She’d end up performing the song at the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, and would, ironically, end up eclipsing the company with her own lingerie brand, Fenty Savage.
Rihanna has never been shy about her penchant for cannabis, but in the realm of pop music, her clouded meditation on smoking weed, “Numb,” was considered controversial at the time. The trap-R&B track saw the pop star tap into her undeniable musical chemistry with Eminem once again, who uses his Slim Shady persona, to switch up his voice and flow.
Thematically, the beginning of Unapologetic finds Rihanna in a confident space. She’s in charge of her destiny, giving off mafioso vibes on “Pour It Up,” a trap strip-club anthem that reads as an answer song to Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance.” On “Loveeeeeee Song,” a duet with emerging trap icon Future, she cautions “don’t slip” and asks, “Why window shop when you own this?” while confessing undying love for her suitor.
On “Jump,” she takes even more control, noting, “Think I give a damn, boy don’t you know who I am?/I ain’t running around chasing no dude.” With thunderous bass drops and a frenzied tempo, “Jump’ leads you right into another Guetta cut, “Right Now.” It instantly became a club favorite, further cementing Rihanna’s role as the CeCe Peniston of the 2010s.
While the first half of Unapologetic showcases Rihanna’s confident side, the second half reveals that she’s still a complex woman who can make some problematic decisions in the eyes of her critics and fans. The power ballad “What Now” addresses this: while her public life looks rosy on the outside, inside she’s been “ignoring this big lump in my throat.” She doesn’t know what’s emotionally eating away at her as she questions “What Now?” to no resolve.
Following “Stay’ is “Nobody’s Business,” another duet with Chris Brown, that samples Michael Jackson over a disco groove. As the couple sings, “It ain’t nobody’s business but mine and my baby,” critics and fans couldn’t fathom why the singer stuck by an abusive partner.
On “Love Without Tragedy”/“Mother Mary,” Rihanna tries to make sense of her own actions, asking listeners, “What’s love without tragedy?” while also being self-aware enough to recognize her own self-sabotaging impulses on the flip side of the song, declaring, “Mother Mary, I swear I wanna change/Mister Jesus, I’d love to be a queen/But I’m from the left side of an island/Never thought this many people would even know my name,” over a new wave production.
She quickly shifts gears, pulling back from personal reveals and launching into another stoner anthem with “Get It Over With,” an alt-R&B masterstroke that adds to Unapologetic’s cloudy soundscape. Meanwhile, “No Love Allowed” is a continuation of Loud’s “Man Down,” but this time around Rihanna is the heartbroken one, asking, “How could you murder us?” As the standout reggae track on the album, “No Love Allowed” is a natural deep cut for the Bajan star.
A humble way to wrap up an era
Unapologetic closes out with another Stargate production, “Lost In Paradise,” which, despite its somber lyrics, is a bouncy track on which Rihanna implores, “How was I to know that my love was delusional/Somebody tell me how to mend a broken-hearted soul.” Despite her pain, however, the song ends on an uplifting note.
On the deluxe edition of the album, “Half Of Me” again finds Rihanna addressing the public controversies and her party-girl reputation. It’s a humble way to wrap up a remarkable four-year journey that truly defined what it meant to be unapologetic.