"You'll always be mine, sing it to the world / Always be my boy, I'll always be your girl."
On paper those words, from a track called "Nobody's Business," are as generic as love lyrics come. But when you have Rihanna singing them to Chris Brown, who famously abused her in 2009, then you've got one of the most disturbing listens in pop history.
Equally stomach-churning is that this duet with Brown brings out Rihanna's most present vocal performance on "Unapologetic" (Def Jam Recordings), her seventh studio album since 2005, and that the music is set to such a peppy, Michael Jackson-inspired beat.
Rihanna is in the right in that she has nothing to apologize for. She can sing a love song with a man who abused her if she wants to. But, of course, the tumultuous relationship with Brown has become and will continue to be everybody's business. Consequently it's impossible to interpret "Nobody's Business" as any other happy-go-lucky love song, to smile and nod your head to the beat, knowing that he beat her.
Then again, that may have been the intent all along. The very appearance of Brown on an album called "Unapologetic" invites controversy. It's meaningful, for better or worse. Analyzed from a different vantage point, one can interpret the kind of power an abuser can have. It's unsettling to hear Rihanna tell Brown "your love is perfection." Most unsettling of all, you believe that she means it.
Ultimately, what this controversial song does is invite conversation and bring a deeper meaning to a genre that typically likes to keep things light.
That said, it's the context, not the song itself, that accomplishes this. Overall, the uneven "Unapologetic" doesn't draw a visceral reaction (although "Numb" might also make you queasy, with Eminem rapping "I'm the butt police" and drawing out the word "rear" to sound like a siren).
But tracks like "Jump" and "Right Now" do what pop does best: They make you want to dance. The former uses a regrettable double entendre about riding a pony (inspired by Ginuwine's 1996 track "Pony," which is sampled here), but it also boasts a massive dubstep breakdown that sounds like a monster attacking a stack of speakers. "Right Now" has dazzling production work from EDM star David Guetta; it's like music from another planet.
Yet the most surprising thing about "Unapologetic" is that it's not uniformly defiant but, for several tracks, exceptionally vulnerable. "What Now" marks the transition, with an anguished Rihanna likening a broken heart to being mocked. "Stay" has a somber piano and tender vocals from guest Mikky Ekko to symbolize the melancholy of a relationship stuck in a cycle.
Most moving of all is "Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary," which seems to be directly inspired by Brown. "Red lipstick, rose petals, heartbreak. I was his Marilyn Monroe," she sings. "You took the best years of my life. I took the best years of your life. Felt like love struck me in the night. I prayed that love don't strike me twice." At about the two minute mark, it transforms into a prayer. "Mother Mary, I swear I wanna change. Mr. Jesus, I'd love to be your queen."
Coupled with the unwavering assurance and confidence on "Nobody's Business," it illustrates the incredible complexity of feelings she has for this guy. It's messy. It's the antithesis of pop and it accomplishes something that isn't achieved too often by her peers: It's personal.
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