For months, we've been bombarded with new releases from pop divas in various stages of their careers, and although they've produced a few sparkling singles (Brandy's "Put It Down," Christina Aguilera's "Your Body," Ke$ha's "Die Young"), the albums, for the most part, have lacked any lasting luster.
Considering how mixed her 2011 annual effort, Talk That Talk, was, I really wasn't expecting Rihanna to be the one to shine like she does on Unapologetic, her seventh studio album. I was even less confident when the set's first single, "Diamonds" -- currently perched at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 and ready to fly to the top next week -- only made me want to listen to another "Diamonds," the one Herb Alpert featuring Janet Jackson took to No. 5 in 1987.
But now that I think about it, I should have seen Rihanna's creative renaissance coming. Though I haven't heard anyone else say it, she might be the most influential pop diva on the planet right now, which is quite a feat, considering that she's the only one who doesn't pretend to be a singer-songwriter or even a serious artist. Anyone who has heard "Let Me Go" on Brandy's Two Eleven, "Circles" on Christina Aguilera's Lotus, or "New Day" on Alicia Keys' upcoming Girl on Fire knows exactly how pervasive her influence has been.
Although others may ape her sound in order to increase their sales potential, it's hard to imagine any other pop princess singing the songs on Unapologetic. It's not so much that Rihanna is such a fantastic singer that nobody can touch her -- she remains limited in that regard, though she's improving -- but she's one of the most confident and unique performers ever to land on planet pop (at least this century). Everyone may want to sound like her, but she doesn't sound like anyone else.
Then there's the music, a state-of-the-art assault of modern pop sounds that still, for the most part, sidesteps any particular sound of the moment. Of the two David Guetta productions, only one, "Right Now," is a concession to the currently prevailing Eurodance-pop, with which, "Diamonds" aside, Rihanna has enjoyed most of her recent chart success. I wouldn't be surprised if it's the next single.
The other Guetta collaboration, the album-opening "Phresh Off the Runway," with its insistent buzz and sonic strut, is the musical equivalent of a killer outfit, the best thing he's done since "Sexy Bitch." "Numb," which features her "Love the Way You Lie" duet partner Eminem, leaves you anything but. It's everything -- cocky, in your face, booming -- that "Here Comes the Weekend," Pink's The Truth About Love collaboration with Eminem, isn't.
After the aggressive R&B/hip-hop-leaning production of its first half (and an interesting interpolation of Ginuwine's 1996 hit "Pony" on "Jump," which should be the second single), Rihanna and her assorted producers break out the test tubes on Unapologetic's ambitious second half, taking aural detours that are likely to divide fans who expect them merely to tick all of the pop boxes.
Ultimately, though, these are the songs, ones that don't really sound like what we'd expect from Rihanna, that leave the most lasting impression. The stripped, piano-driven sound of "Stay" would be right at home in a dive with dirty sticky floors, with co-writer, co-producer and co-vocalist Mikky Ekko challenging Rihanna to pursue -- and reach -- new vocal heights.
The disco soul of "Nobody's Business" is nothing we haven't heard before circa 1980, but it's jarring (and refreshing!) to hear Rihanna in such a straightforward musical setting that's doesn't care what year it is, and after his rapping stint on Brandy's "Put It Down," it's nice to get Rihanna's controversial ex and regular collaborator Chris Brown once again doing what he does best: singing. Next up, "Love Without Tragedy"/"Mother Mary" borders on psychedelic pop, while "Get It Over With," Unapologetic's best song, combines a shuffle beat, sweeping orchestral production and an inspirational message confidently delivered by Rihanna in a vocal performance that gets away with being almost jazzy.
The most remarkable thing about Unapologetic (besides "Get It Over With") is how Rihanna continues her tradition of being a two-faced diva -- one moment, she's a swaggering sex goddess, the next unabashedly vulnerable -- but this time, without being just either/or. Emotionally and stylistically, she's all over the place, but for all of the album's musical exploration, she never sounds like she's hiding behind masks, putting on whatever costume suits the song. If this Rihanna (all these Rihannas) aren't the real one, then she's a better actress than Battleship suggested.
Unapologetic is Rihanna's best album since Rated R (her pop masterpiece) because for all its machine-fueled sonics, Rihanna never sounds less than imperfectly human.