Posts Tagged ‘smoking’

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what it feels like for a quitter.

May 14, 2013

2013 seems to be a year of me leaving things behind in search of establishing my independence, and although this can be called “quitting”, I guess that quitting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve left one job for another, which has turned out to be at times a disorienting move, but ultimately one that has improved my sanity and quality of life, as well as my prospects for moving up the career ladder (I desperately need to get into a managerial position and gain experience of leading a team). My new job isn’t perfect, and it is a slight departure from what I thought it would entail, but at the end of the day, I am happy for now and I hope that it will be a stepping stone to greater things.

One of the loves of my life, Starbucks, has been another thing I’ve drastically cut down on. As money became tighter during the first few months (note to self and anyone reading: always budget for food!), Starbucks was something I didn’t really need and so I didn’t spend on it. Occasionally I will still have one, but work provides free instant coffee so that is sufficient to wake me up once I get into the office; Starbucks is much more of a social thing nowadays. Also, they do wonderful specialty coffees (read: sweet, sticky treats of drinks) and I still adore a white chocolate mocha or a strawberries and cream frappuccino; but it’s not great for the waistline! Especially when I now live full-time with a fabulous chef who always makes seconds.

And nor is quitting smoking. I started off the year well enough, but soon I started to make exceptions; one in my break during Italian class; one when I was feeling stressed at lunchtime; one nearly every lunchtime… Although going up to 4 cigarettes a week is hardly anything to write home about when I was smoking 8 a day only 6 or so months ago, it represented a breakdown in my willpower. So after a discussion with Toby where he found out about my secret smoking and was shocked, I ended up handing over my cigarettes and lighter to him because I knew that this was a way to completely stop myself from cheating. And it’s worked – I’ve gone nearly 4 weeks without a single cigarette.

Quitting smoking isn’t too difficult in terms of the practical sense; don’t bring your cigarettes with you, and you don’t smoke. Don’t bring your lighter with you, and you can’t smoke even if you buy cigarettes. But it’s the mental games that you play with yourself – on one of the rare warm, summery days, having a cigarette is so carefree and relaxing. It is de-stressing, and it is a way of killing time. Watching other people smoking makes me feel envious of the moment they are enjoying. I gave up smoking – surely one every now and then can’t hurt? (That’s the kind of thinking that leads to making exceptions for yourself, and that’s how I started back on them a couple of months ago.) Why should I have to sacrifice everything?

Everyone has vices – this is true. Do I honestly, truly think that I have smoked my last cigarette? I doubt it. I enjoyed smoking so much,  and I think about smoking quite often because I am still conscious, after this amount of time, that I am depriving myself. But when Toby found out that I had been smoking in secret, he was really upset because he hadn’t known about it (I was ashamed to say anything, and I also felt – quite defiantly – that I didn’t have to report to him. Even though it may have helped, in this case) and he wanted to help me help myself to give up. So I gave him my smoking paraphernalia and that has been the practical part solved. Even now, I often feel tempted to give up on giving up – denial is exhausting, rebellion is satisfying and makes me feel free. But I also know that it’s an illusion – smoking ties down my money and my health (even though you can’t feel it short-term). Toby said to me that he wants to help me give up to support our future together, and to help us ensure that we can grow old together.

Thinking about these words, and about the fact that he was disappointed that I was creeping down the slippery smoky slope, give me the inspiration to try as hard as I can to remain smoke-free. I want my partner to be proud of me, I want us to live long lives together as much as is possible, and more than anything I want to demonstrate that I can triumph over temptation and maintain my willpower. I found out that not long after I quit smoking, Mike also did – now, if he can quit smoking, I guess anyone can! He had a throat infection over the winter (and various chest and lung problems in the run-up to that), and this finally spurred him to quit smoking because he couldn’t smoke during his infection, and once he stopped he thought he might as well stay stopped.

The life of a quitter is hard. The argument in my head that I have already deprived myself of plenty (see above) and why should I enforce this suffering on myself – everyone has vices and their own personal addictions, and I don’t get any reward or gold star for behaving so abstemiously – is a strong one. I had a dream last night that I was in Italy – glamour central! – and I had met up with some man who was supposed to be my father (although he didn’t resemble my actual dad in any way) and his new girlfriend. Everyone around me was smoking, and I was so tempted to have a cigarette, but what convinced me to resist was that even in my dream, I knew that Toby would be upset with me. If I feel a little bit like I am being controlled, I can tolerate it only because I know that Toby is trying to help me and ultimately liberate me, and I’ve given him permission to do that. So I don’t know if I will make it as a non-smoker all the way to the end of my days, but I hope that by taking each day at a time, I could maybe do it? The life of a quitter is uncertain. But it’s also hopeful.

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antidote.

January 7, 2013

Today, I realised that my intention for 2013 is to get the poison out of my life. I know that the word “detox” normally conjures up ideas of colonics, crazy crash diets and unlikely health fads, but the real meaning of the word “detox” is to detoxify. I think the start of the year heralds many positive changes for my life, and it’s time to make those positive changes to serve as an antidote to the things that have been undermining my happiness, sometimes sneakily and sometimes less so.

I have so far been cigarette-free for nearly a week. I know it’s early days, but this is a good sign that I’ll be able to maintain this in the long term. Toby and I have been considering healthy eating alternatives, and today he made us both a lunchbox filled with couscous, sliced peppers, carrots and cucumber, and some hummus. It was healthy and filling – not particularly inspiring, but nevertheless it made a nice change from my usual lunch and it did keep me fuller for longer! So after a few weeks of getting used to a more varied lunch through the week incorporating more vegetables (I am also embracing Greek yoghurt as a snack), I’m going to attempt to reintroduce sit-ups and press-ups back into my life. I knew that quitting smoking would work best cold turkey for me; other things, like introducing healthier food and exercise, are going to be a more gradual change that I will be fairly loose with in an attempt to make these changes something I can ultimately incorporate into my life without resenting.

In two weeks’ time, I will start a new job at a university in central London! I am so thrilled to have got this new position, which is similar in nature to my current one but in an HE environment, which to me is a real step up and will open up more career opportunities. It also allows me to escape the toxic and insane atmosphere and games in my current workplace. To me, this is a perfect example of getting some of the poison out of my life – dealing with resentment, uncertainty and unnecessary stress every day in the workplace has a detrimental effect after a while, and I don’t need to be treated that way. So I’ve chosen to move on to somewhere that will hopefully respect me a lot more. Toby is also excited because I will rant less about work at the end of most days!

Following up from my blog lamenting the prospect of Christmas spent with my family, it was actually more comically awful than I could ever have anticipated – although my homosexuality and my relationship with Toby had nothing to do with the drama. My parents had a massive row which made me feel like it was 20 years ago screaming at them to leave each other alone and solve their problems; my mother subsequently broke her wrist; my cousin, uncle and aunt revealed a casual homophobia that I found bizarre. And due to the stellar weather (*sarcasm*), the transport getting to and from Bristol was fucked up both times. In summary, even though I had pretty much made up my mind before even going home, this winter’s experience has confirmed that next Christmas will be my first London Christmas, creating my own traditions and carving out my independence. I will still see my family for a weekend around that time, and I will see Toby’s family for a weekend around that time too – but I need at least one Christmas where I am nobody’s child and instead am free to be my own person. I am already looking forward to it.

I feel like even if a couple of the changes I am setting out here have fallen by the wayside by the end of the year, that 2013 signifies a new start, a new day and a refined (if not “new”) me. Along with this, I’ve already started writing lyrics for a new album that will reflect maturity, independence, hope, strength and importantly, vibrancy. By removing all of the poison from my day-to-day existence (physically, mentally and emotionally), I hopefully will have more freedom and energy to enjoy life and really make the most of it.

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enter: 2013

January 2, 2013

I have found that writing a list at the start of each year has been a fairly successful way of realising at least some of my ambitions, as well as being able to look back at the previous year and seeing how far I have come. Since I started this blog back in 2009, each year has resulted in a lot of changes and accomplishments, which makes me incredibly happy!  So before I look at what I hope to have in store for 2013, I want to review my goals for 2012 and see how I did.

1. Learn to cook a new dish every month.

Tick… well, I got just over halfway before finally getting bored of this. I am just not one for cooking, and I really did not enjoy it. But after nine months’ worth of trying to make new dishes, I have learned some useful things and when I find myself in the situation of having to cook a meal, I can usually concoct something from whatever ingredients are in stock without resorting to a ready meal or pulling my hair out. So I think that that is progress!

2. Cut down on takeaways – to once a fortnight.

More or less! I think some weeks we do better than others, but we definitely have less takeaways than we used to. Hopefully we will renew our strictness with this rule over the coming year.

3. Move in with Toby.

Tick! This was one of the big achievements this year – we now are living together in our beautiful flat in Chiswick, and we are very happy.

4. Pay off my student overdraft.

Nope. Last time my car ate my money, this time the new flat and two wonderful holidays (to Paris and Prague) did it instead. But hopefully 2013 will be the year! Especially as I am being charged for using this overdraft now – so I’m fairly confident I will defeat it.

5. Learn Italian

Tick! In a couple of weeks, I will be starting my third term of learning Italian at the Italian Cultural Institute on Belgrave Square. My teacher Giuseppe is fantastic, and I really enjoy it.

6. Learn to sew

Tick! I think I learned this skill fairly early on into the year, and it’s been useful throughout. Now, I can repair holes and tears in tops, underwear, socks and trousers, and keep my wardrobe going a bit longer.

7. Finish my new album

Tick! Well, I finished 2526 – I had hoped it would be longer and wider in scope, but in the end the concept of the album dictated that I had to finish it in October. But nevertheless I am proud of it and I feel that the mood and quality of the songs represent another step forward for me musically.

8. Go completely digital with my music and film collections, and only keep physical copies of what I really love

Nope, not yet. I’ve managed to get all of my DVDs from Bristol to London, and the next thing is to get my CDs up here. I already sold a lot of the ones that I knew I didn’t want, but it’ll be easier to work out what I want to keep and sell once I have everything here in my flat, and can just put a pile aside for MusicMagpie or Cex or whatever. My iPod finally died in November after 4 years of faithful service, and though in previous years I would have had to run to the Apple store to buy a new one, this time I’m surviving with the (tiny) music library on my iPhone. Which I feel represents patience, maturity and restraint! As well as a concentration on what’s really important, and where my money needs to go. Eventually I’d really like another iPod but I can’t see myself getting one for another few months yet. So I feel that this aim is on hold for now – I’ll hopefully achieve it gradually, but in the meantime I prefer the tangibility of music and film purchases in any case. I am still learning to step into the future, I suppose!

5 / 5.5 out of 8 is perfectly reasonable, I think! And now, my list of goals and resolutions for 2013:

1. Quit smoking.

Toby’s never known me as a non-smoker, and I think it’s about time he did. It’s going to be difficult, and I don’t want cigarettes to have complete power over me to the point where I’m as much a slave to them having given up as I am being a smoker. I’ve already cut down quite a bit so now I just have to take the final leap. Going back to work will be difficult because I need the breaks and I will feel silly just walking around Notting Hill doing nothing, but I’ll work something out. I do enjoy a cigarette, and so perhaps every now and then I may have a cigarette socially – who knows. I’m trying to be loose about it at the moment, so that I don’t feel overly pressurised and that there isn’t a wagon to jump on / fall off of. But generally, this is the year I stop, and I know that I have the willpower (read: stubbornness) to do so. To muffle any temptation, I need to think of: the money I’m saving, my teeth not turning yellow, my blood pressure and life expectancy being improved, not smelling of cigarettes, and (most importantly) being healthy for Toby and showing that I value our love, life and longevity.

2. Pay off my student overdraft.

Third time lucky!

3 & 4. Get fit and toned, and write and record over half of my new album.

I was watching Skyfall with the delicious Daniel Craig, and I decided that I want his body. Except without quite so much effort, and my face shouldn’t be as aged as his. But he’s pretty amazing, physically. At the same time, I also decided that my new music has to be made with heart and soul, and in this way it will show my evolution. Hence my new life motto for this year is “Body and Soul” – I will look after my body and keep fit and hopefully lose some weight and tone up, and I will make music that is vibrant and true.

5. To sing live at least once, in front of an audience.

Because I haven’t done it in a long time, and I miss it!

6. Write a novel.

I already wrote a chapter of a novel a few months ago, but it trailed off and I haven’t done anything with it since. I have been inspired by Toby’s brother, who actually wrote a novel and got it published on Amazon and everything. I used to love creative writing ever since I was little, and so it’s a natural progression in a way for me to write a book. Watch this space…

7. Learn to moonwalk.

I love dancing, and I was watching the documentary for Michael Jackson’s Bad album and it suddenly occurred to me that learning to moonwalk would be something really fun. The only setback to this plan is that the floors throughout our flat are carpeted. But I wanted a goal that was quite light-hearted and fun, amidst all of the seriousness!

8. Pass Italian exam in the summer.

At the Italian Cultural Institute, at the end of each term you can take an exam to get a qualification demonstrating your proficiency in the language. By the end of this academic year (i.e. in July), I will have finished the upper intermediate class if all goes to plan – and so I think it would be good to have a recognised qualification stating my ability in the Italian language. So this is something that I want to achieve too. At the same time, I am hoping that I will continue reading literature in both Spanish and Italian to maintain my fluency in both of those languages (if I have to sacrifice one of my languages, I guess it would be French.)

9. Teach Toby how to play chess.

We have a nice wooden chess set on our coffee table, and I can’t believe that Toby is so intelligent and yet does not know how to play chess. So I will teach him – it’s an important life skill and keeps the brain active and from being rotted by episodes of 30 Rock and The Big Bang Theory.

10. Start saving up a deposit for a house.

I know, we only just moved into the Chiswick flat! Toby and I really like this area of London, and so it’s gonna be a long time before we can actually afford something here. But why not start now? This is something that will happen once I have finished paying off my overdraft (see number 2) but I hope that by the end of the year, I will have put some new money in my festering ISA that can be ultimately used for the deposit on a lovely flat or house.

Wish me luck, and good luck with your resolutions and goals for the year ahead!

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last Christmas.

December 15, 2012

I remember when I started this blog that I would write quite lengthy, detailed posts about my personal life and about all of my feelings and experiences. This blog has been around for over 3 years and during that time my life has transformed in a lot of ways: I did a postgrad, started working in jobs I actually wanted, learned to drive and bought a car, entered a long-term relationship, moved to London and supported myself, moved in with my boyfriend… I made the decision not to talk about my relationship in too much detail because I feel that my private life is just for me and for Toby – but he informs everything I do now and is such a big part of me that every post on here, more or less, is influenced by him or concerns him to some degree.

Although I am certainly more mature and guarded about what I choose to post on the internet, sometimes I miss the honesty and openness with which I used to post. Sometimes, when I have dilemmas in my life, I find myself typing my question into Google in search of some advice. And sometimes I find some decent food for thought, whereas other times there’s just nothing sensible or nothing that quite touches the nature of what I am going through. But on those occasions where I do find something that can help me, through offering a kindred voice or shedding an alternative perspective on a situation, it’s really valuable. And so I have decided that in this post, I am going to be honest and talk about what is on my mind, in the hope that one day someone else might find my post and it might help them to know that they are not alone.

Yesterday I was speaking to my mother on the phone and apropos of nothing, she asked me that when I am in Bristol for Christmas, that I don’t voluntarily reveal the fact that I am gay and in a healthy, happy long-term relationship with my partner. The reason for this is that my uncle and aunt are coming up from Melbourne for the holiday to visit my grandmother. My cousin (my uncle and aunt’s daughter) has been living in Bristol with my grandmother for the past six months, and during this time she has demonstrated that she has grown up a lot from the irksome child and teenager that she was when I had previously met her. And yet the other day, my mother was having a conversation with her and my grandmother, and my cousin asks “how is Alan getting on with his flatmate?” Toby is my boyfriend, my lover, my partner with whom I share a flat – but he is so much more than my “flatmate” that I paused a little bit – because surely this is obvious, and my cousin (whose recent displays of emotional intelligence lead me to believe that she would have caught onto this) must know that Toby is my boyfriend. My mum then told me that my cousin has revealed in the past that my uncle (who has hitherto always been nice to me) “hates certain celebrity chefs because they are gay” apparently. And so, my mother has asked me not to volunteer any information about Toby to “keep the peace on Christmas Day” and to keep my grandmother happy, because otherwise relatives’ reactions “may cause a scene and my grandmother will get upset.”

What the fuck.

I am not at all angry at my mother for wanting a peaceful Christmas – it’s perfectly understandable. My mother’s side of the family is Italian (and therefore Catholic, although I wouldn’t describe them as religious with the exception of my grandmother who goes to church twice a week – but only since my grandfather passed away 5 years ago). But I have introduced Toby to my father (who has made crass comments about gay people in the past but has never been anything but welcoming of Toby and supportive of me in my relationship – I feel that his macho posturing isn’t really indicative of his views, which annoys me somewhat – why does he even need to act a certain way therefore? But I appreciate the fact that he is accepting of me) and everything has been fine – Toby has never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome in my parents’ home. My grandmother has met Toby a few times now and they get on ok too – neither is my grandmother stupid; she knows who he is to me, even if she doesn’t say it out loud. But here lies the crux of the problem – everybody knows, but nobody wants to talk about it. Everybody is actually fine with my sexuality, but everybody seems to think that they are the only “enlightened one” and that nobody else approves. So it remains a big open secret. Which to me is partly laughable, but also quite painful because I have absolutely no shame in having found a man that I love with all my heart, and having established a strong and secure relationship with him. Shouldn’t this be something that could be appreciated, if it’s too much to ask for it to be celebrated? Why do I have to keep quiet about the most positive (out of a range of very positive things in my life) part of who I am today?

I have always been the Beyoncé of the family, if you will. (Prepare for me to toot my own horn in the next couple of sentences.) Not only because I’m musically talented, but I am the only person on my mother’s side of the family to go to university, let alone to the University of Oxford and then on to achieve a postgraduate qualification afterwards. I am the only one who has successfully moved out of Bristol. I’m the slimmest and most fashionable out of me and my cousins. I have an interesting job which pays a decent wage (but more about that in another post, as I have an announcement to make!). I am 27 years old and I have done pretty well so far (with some wobbles along the way – but hey, that’s life right?). With all of this hard work (which was for myself, but it didn’t hurt that it pleased others also), it would appear that the fact that I am gay, that I happen to be attracted to men, and that I have now built a life for myself with another man whom I love deeply, resets everything. I will never be good enough, and no matter what I did or what I achieve in the future, I never had a chance at being “good enough” because of my sexuality, which is something I cannot control. I love being gay, I love Toby, I am very happy with my life and with myself (apart from the fact that I ought to quit smoking and that next year I am going to lose weight – but there’s a forthcoming post for that too because my musical goals and my aesthetic aims are going hand in hand in 2013).  And I can’t talk about any of it, because other people may react to it, and it may upset someone else. Well, it upsets me! What about that?

Back to the phone call. So my mother asked this favour of me. I fell silent, and I said that I didn’t know if I could do that – I certainly couldn’t promise anything. I know that she understands, and I know that she didn’t like asking, and I am not angry at her. But I am angry at my family because I am never going to be good enough, and I am not able to relax and completely be myself. I told my mother that I didn’t understand why I should compromise myself. It’s not natural for one to shout their gayness or their homosexual monogamous relationship upon entering a room – this is not my intention. But I am 27 years old, and I am not afraid of them anymore – I have built my own life, and at the end of the day, I don’t live in Bristol and I don’t need the validation of my family. It’s nice if I could feel comfortable with them – but if that’s not going to be a possibility, c’est la vie. I will choose Toby over them, if it has to come to it. I am sad that it might have to come to that – but maybe we can’t have everything. I have a lot, and that’s enough. But I refuse to be intimidated by small-minded, low-aspiring people. I don’t even really know if they are small-minded – this is all just rumour and myth. But after all – I’d better not say anything, just in case.

I want everyone to have a lovely Christmas day. I want Toby to feel welcome when he comes to Bristol, and the fact that he does perplexes me even more in light of this request. I don’t want my grandmother to be upset, and I don’t want anybody to cause a scene. But it’s not my fault if they cause a scene because of their own prejudice, surely? I don’t understand why I have to conceal, compromise and sacrifice my identity in the presence of people whom I see only occasionally, and who are my frickin’ family, so as not to rock a phantom boat. Am I being unreasonable? Because perhaps it’s not such a big thing to ask, for one day. But then, to me, it’s not really about one family day – it’s about me being denied the ability to openly be myself, to celebrate all of the things I have achieved and the precious gift of Toby’s presence in my life. He is wonderful, and I don’t see why I have to downplay this. I’m not going to shout it from the rooftops (though sometimes I want to! 🙂 ) because that would be unnatural, but neither am I going to lie about it because that is no more natural either.

This is bringing me to the sad conclusion that, whether or not a scene occurs, I feel like this will be my last Christmas in Bristol with my family, for at least a while. I don’t want to hurt my family by not celebrating with them, but at the same time I am an adult now, with the right to live my own life. (I can’t lie – it will be nice to actually not do a big travelling jaunt for one year.) I’m old enough to make my own decisions and to choose to stand my ground and enjoy my life in my own home. I have proven my worth time and again, and I now have the flat, the job, the relationship – the evidence to show for it. It’s not my fault that my family members may be insecure or jealous, and I don’t see why I should compromise myself to appease any inadequacies they may or may not feel. It’s not my problem. If I cannot be myself on Christmas day, then maybe next year it has finally come to the point where I’ve got to start making my own traditions, and if it means being by myself then hey – I’ll do it. I would never begrudge Toby going to spend time with his family, and maybe I would be able to join them instead. I don’t know – this whole situation has thrown me into a realm of “I don’t know”. What I do know is that I won’t lie, I won’t hide, and I won’t be ashamed. I am strong enough and secure enough to stand alone – I’d rather not have to, but if that’s the way it has to be then so be it. A part of me hopes I’ll be pleasantly surprised this Christmas and all these worries and postulations will count for nothing. I really don’t know what will happen – I am confident that I feel the right way about the situation, but I hope that I will have the grace and the presence of mind to react correctly and in a dignified manner to whatever situation arises.

I’ll let you know.

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Rihanna – Unapologetic. (album review)

December 2, 2012

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Unapologetic might be Rihanna’s best album yet. In truth, I’ve been struggling to work out how to start a review of this album without referring to her previous masterpiece Rated R, which was a tour de force that exposed an angry, vulnerable girl trying to figure out the aftermath of love gone wrong. This album came out when I was in the midst of trying to untangle and deal with my own feelings of unrequited love, and resonated with me on such a level. On the other hand, Unapologetic comes out when I am happily in love and settled in my own life. This time, Rihanna’s narrative is quite different to my own – and yet Unapologetic, to its credit, still connects with the listener, drawing them into her fury that this time is more simmering than explosive (on Rated R, all-out rage only begins to subside into a quieter, more vulnerable, bubbling – yet nevertheless powerful – anger at around “Photographs”, two thirds of the way through the record).

Of course, Rihanna’s life has changed considerably since then. An even bigger star now than she was 3 years ago with the ability to only release number 1 singles, now she has a number 1 album to match. Meanwhile, her atomic breakup with Chris Brown (precipitated by his fists) has metamorphosed into media-baiting behaviour, ill-advised collaborations with Brown and the rumoured (likely true, if the photographs and ineloquent tweets and confessions of her ex are to be believed) rekindling of their romance. Unapologetic: why shouldn’t Rihanna forgive her abuser, her first love? Why shouldn’t she work with a hot male R&B star? Why can’t she misbehave, smoke, drink, party night after night like anyone in their early twenties? Despite what naysayers like to purvey, her career certainly hasn’t suffered for it. But the material on the album – none of which was written by Rihanna but all of which has a stamp immediately more personal than the scattergun Loud that hit dizzying heights all too infrequently, and than the ultimately unsatisfying Talk That Talk that petered out halfway after such a promising start – displays a thoughtfulness that suggests that while Rihanna may be “unapologetic”, she’s not unaware of what is going on around her, what is happening to her and certainly of what is being said or claimed about her. Unapologetic continues where Rated R left off: there are certainly hits, but nearly every song carries a depth of meaning that exudes confidence, confusion, sex and honesty.

Opener “Phresh Out The Runway” is swag personified, and is effectively Rihanna making an entrance. While it’s great to start the album, and an excellent song to listen to for an immediate energy boost when you’re half-asleep leaving the house on the way to work, it’s not the meaningful content I’ve discussed above. Neither is the other David Guetta collaboration, “Right Now”, a club diversion that rehashes previous album highlight “Where Have You Been” to pleasant but unremarkable effect. But on lead single “Diamonds”, we get a childlike chant, a sparkling midtempo strut and a powerful vocal that lyrically echoes previous megahit “We Found Love”: where there were “yellow diamonds in the sky”, now we are “shining bright like a diamond in the sky”. Rihanna’s vocals have grown more impressive over the years (whatever she’s smoking, I would like some) and where she may have simply been a vehicle for delivering hit songs even on the consistent Good Girl Gone Bad, now it’s she who transforms a song into a smash. The chorus is powerful yet sincere, and lyrics such as the telling “I choose to be happy” betray a sense of desperation in trying to convince herself that a romantic relationship is truly infallible rather than fleeting (as are the moments portrayed in the accompanying video). It’s a fantastic performance, and a refreshingly downbeat choice for a lead single that nonetheless packs punch.

The next trio of songs could all be described as downbeat yet potent, but each has its own place on the album. “Numb” works atop a sensual Egyptian-sounding ostinato and pounding drums, while Rihanna drawls monotonously that nobody “can’t tell her nothing… I’m impaired / I’m going numb, I’m going numb”. Interestingly, the vulnerability continues as the lyrics imply that for all her power and “double-dares”, Rihanna sees herself as the defective one. “Pour It Up” in contrast is celebratory of women who are in charge (like Rihanna, of course)… and yet the vocals and beats are submerged in aural tar, as if Rihanna is high off the champagne, weed and money referenced in the songs. None of these songs are instant, and yet on repeated listens they reveal themselves as worthwhile and interesting – “balling out” may not be as fun as it’s cracked up to be. “Loveeeeeee Song” is also very chill, working from a traditional R&B template that’s chopped and screwed into something less recognisable. It’s a romantic ballad dressed up as a nonchalant come-on. So far, the theme of Unapologetic is that appearances can be deceiving – Rihanna is flawless, cocky, confident, nonchalant, vulnerable, determined to be happy, numb, impaired, intoxicated, worried about “sounding too desperate”, in need of love and affection… It’s a spiralling morass of emotion dressed up as a percolating limousine ride.

Things become much more straightforward with “Jump” – i.e. SMASH. Dubstep breakdowns done right and made fresh and dynamic; a sample of “Pony” by Ginuwine that could have easily been problematic (as is so often the case when interpolating excellent material) but instead elevates the music; Rihanna is cocksure and forthright. But within a couple of songs, we have an explosive ballad that I saw described by a user on Popjustice as “fire and ice blasting out of the ground”. “What Now” is flawless and one of Rihanna’s best works – a mid-tempo ballad that quickly becomes bombastic, overwrought and emboldened by one of her best vocal performances to date. As drums explode and guitars roar to a climax, lyrics profess that “I spent every hour just going through the motions / I can’t even get the emotions to come out / Dry as a bone, but I just wanna shout”. The emotions certainly do come out, so palpably that the cut is utterly absorbing and one of Rihanna’s best. “Stay” directly follows this and is the quietest track on the album, serving as more evidence of Rihanna’s improvements as a vocalist and interpretative singer – she is capable of taking a song and breathe life into it, whatever the subject matter or emotional standpoint. It’s just been confirmed as Unapologetic‘s second single and appears to be a fan favourite, though I wouldn’t go any further than saying the song is fine – I would certainly champion other tracks over this one. But its contrast with the other songs on the album and with Rihanna’s usual output gives it its own place on the album.

“Nobody’s Business”, the duet with Chris Brown, is the perceived “event” of the album, sampling Michael Jackson to boot. But musically it’s a little bit flat – the existence of the duet says more than its sonic attributes. “You’ll always be mine, sing it to the world… ain’t nobody’s business.” Yet another contradiction in an album full of them, both lyrically and musically. Is Rihanna purposefully spiting all of those who supported her during the fallout of her abuse suffered at Brown’s hands? Is it offensive? Or are they just teasing? It seems very pointed when Rihanna sings “Let’s make out in this Lexus” – as opposed to what happened in a car last time! It’s a trying sentiment that seems difficult to understand – but once again, let’s remember that Rihanna is “unapologetic” so what does it matter? She is going to do what she wants, she’s young and in love, and hopefully she won’t get hurt again in such a way. “Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary” is the album’s centrepiece that, like “The Last Song” from Rated R, captivates the listener with exceptionally personal exposure. Where the previous track aims to provoke without any substance to back it up, here the confessional actually reveals a lot. “I was his Marilyn Monroe / Brown eyes, tuxedo, fast cars / A James Dean on the low.” We are clearly taken back to that fateful night of Rihanna’s being attacked (and interestingly, she hints at Chris Brown’s alleged bisexuality to boot, which may or may not have something to do with the night in question).  The bravado of “Nobody’s Business” is completely gone here, and as the song transitions into “Mother Mary”, Rihanna sounds less sure of her swagger: “I swear I wanna change”. The lyrics touch on the nature of fame, as does worthwhile bonus track “Half Of Me”, and implies that whatever we think we know about Rihanna, us outsiders never get to see the whole picture and so we shouldn’t judge… but Rihanna understands that we inevitably will. As much as “Nobody’s Business” claimed to be happy-go-lucky and ready to dive into love-as-sex, “Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary” shows much more depth of thought (as in “What Now”) and heart that encourages repeat listens. This is another highlight of Unapologetic.

The closing songs of the album feel like a plane coming into land. “Get It Over With” is sublime, like a song-length interlude that urges the climax to “come on and fucking rain”; anger gives way to fatigue and surrender to whatever will be, good or bad. “No Love Allowed” is, contrastingly, a deceptively sunny reggae song that once again confounds expectations set up by the previous song. But the lyrics are spooky and uncomfortable, as was its precursor in spirit, Loud‘s “Man Down”. In direct opposition to that song’s subject matter, here it’s Rihanna yelling “911 it’s a critical emergency / Better run run run and charge him with the 143.” It’s a neat (perhaps too neat?) inversion of “Man Down” and seems to shed more light on the Chris Brown saga… but as highlighted in “Half Of Me”, how much do we ever know about Rihanna? We’re not privy to the whole story – according to “Mother Mary”, she’s going to “make the best scene they’ve ever seen.” “Lost In Paradise”, last but not least, is a bass-heavy closer that implies the story is not over, because now Rihanna has to find meaning to the paradise she claims to be stranded in if she ever hopes to find her way out.

For an album where Rihanna does not carry a single songwriting credit (though she is an executive producer), Unapologetic sure feels personal. And honest: an album filled with contradictions that are often calculated but nevertheless sound/feel like they have genuine meaning. The journey of the album is consistently riveting and reveals its complexities on repeated listens. There may be few answers to fans’ questions (however many sordid details it provides), but this rings less as Rihanna being deliberately elusive and more as she herself not quite knowing how to proceed. After all, she’s naked on the damn album cover – how much more vulnerable can one be, clothed only in a flimsy gauze of words, slogans and hashtags? In a world where her lover became her abuser and now may become her lover again, and where soundscapes and lyrics distort and contort around and through her voice, the one thing – no, two things – Rihanna clearly knows is how to release hit singles, and how to craft a powerful album.