For better or worse, how you end up feeling about Rihanna's Unapologetic album will probably come down to one question: How do you feel about Rihanna? Are you in awe of her work ethic, which, at this point, is verging on superhuman (seven albums in seven years is certainly nothing to sneeze at), or have you grown tired of her constant presence in the public eye? Do you think she's shocking, or is she rehashing every salacious moment from the past 30 years of pop?
And ultimately, how do you feel about her rekindled relationship with Chris Brown, which may or may not actually be real, but certainly has garnered no shortage of media attention in recent months?
That last question is perhaps the most important, because whether she intended it or not, Rihanna's on-again/off-again romance with Brown seems to be the biggest inspiration behind Unapologetic, coloring each of its 14 tracks in some way — or, in the case of their duet "Nobodies Business," completely — imbuing the ballads (and there are a lot of them) with a sanguine sadness and the booming club tracks with a defiant swagger. It is, without question, Rihanna's most personal album to date, not to mention her most complex, both emotionally and sonically. Though for all the questions it raises, you don't have to look very far to figure out how Rihanna herself feels about all this: It's written right there on the cover.
Yes, Unapologetic is certainly the most aptly titled album in recent memory. From the rattling electro whomp of tracks like "Fresh Out the Runway" and "Numb" (a stony, snake-charmer jam featuring a killer contribution from Eminem) to the "I choose to be happy" sentiments of first single "Diamonds," Rihanna does things her way, defiantly so. "Jump" and "Right Now" embrace the hard-revving rave-ups and knotty bass lines of dubstep with mixed results (the former, on which she bites lines from Ginuwine's "Pony," is particularly great, while the latter could do with a little less David Guetta); "No Love Allowed" is a lilting, island-tinged tune that recalls Desmond Dekker's "Israelites"; and the handful of ballads — "Stay," "Get It Over With," "Love Without Tragedy," to name a few — pile on the piano with aplomb. Shoot, she even decided to name a track "Loveeeeeee Song," mostly because Jay-Z told her to.
But the most Unapologetic moment is unquestionably "Nobodies Business," her duet with Brown. It will almost certainly be the focal point of every review of the album, and justifiably so. When it was played Friday night at the 40/40 Club, the crowd — made up of assorted media types and a large contingent of Rihanna's Navy — responded with loud approval, clearly showing which side of the debate they're on. And yet, depending on your personal feelings about their unrepentant love, hearing the two coo lines like "You'll always be my boy, I'll always be your girl" and "Your love is infectious, let's make out in this Lexus" is slightly disappointing.
Which is why how you feel about Rihanna herself will probably determine how you feel about Unapologetic. It goes beyond mere music and raises no shortage of questions about the complexities of love (or lust) and life in the public eye. If you support Rihanna and her decisions, then you will no doubt delight in delving into the album's lyrical depths. If you worry about the example she's setting by openly — and defiantly — embracing the man who assaulted her four years ago, then you're going to have a difficult time with most, if not all, of the record. That may not be fair, but it's inevitable.
Then again, one gets the suspicion that Rihanna doesn't care either way. She's making her private life available for public consumption, and doing so proudly. And because of that, she's turned in the most complex album of her (still young) career, one on which she takes risks, pushes boundaries and opens up like never before. Bold? Brazen? Have a listen and call it what you will. Though there's no doubt why she decided to call it Unapologetic.