Posts Tagged ‘uncomfortable’

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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.

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love me.

May 6, 2010

Yesterday we were doing a magazine CV collage with some special needs students visiting UWE, and the idea of this activity is for the kids to divide a sheet into Hobbies, Future, Skills/Interests and School, and then they have a big pile of magazines from which to cut out pictures and annotate each section, to draw up a picture of themselves.  It’s quite a basic activity but the students always enjoy it, and often end up just flicking through the magazines.  Each time we seem to have to edit the content (for example, the story “I was battered by a 12-inch dildo” isn’t quite appropriate!) – usually from women’s magazines, you girls are filthy!!! – but generally a lot of fun is had.  I had brought in some old copies of Vibe and Touch to contribute to the magazines the students used for collages, and I found one with a Mary J. Blige interview, which I couldn’t help but start rereading.

Apart from talking about the backstories to some of her earlier songs, and stating that people seemed to support her more when she was making sad, introspective songs struggling with love and life than her newer, more lyrically upbeat material, Mary talked about learning to accept love, finding romance and getting through years of emotional abuse.  This was the most interesting part of the interview for me, and resulted in me deciding to keep the magazine and take it back home (as well as listening to My Life again)!  I reflected on my own love life, and thought about a variety of my favourite celebrities: Mary, Mariah Carey, Usher, Janet Jackson, Rihanna (among others) have all stated that they never thought they would find love; that maybe love just wasn’t for them.  For a while, I was starting to feel the same way, and even though I am now in a relationship I still often wonder if I’m capable of really loving someone, giving myself to somebody.  I never had anybody who treated me so wonderfully and who seems to really care for me, and yet I find myself trying to sort out the fantasy from the reality: what is falling in love?  What does it feel like?  Will I know? Or is it more realistic to be with somebody who makes life that little bit better, but still have your independence and feel like an individual person.  What is love?  Is love the former, or does it fall somewhere in between? I just don’t know, and I guess that different people have different opinions on love (depending on their experience; some people really do know when they have found the one, others believe they have and then get it wrong, other people again seem to say that no lover is perfect but being with somebody who treats you well is the most important thing).  I just feel like I’m tiptoeing through a foggy minefield and at any moment it’s all going to blow up in my face.

I think part of my confusion stems from the fact that I am stubborn, feisty and fiercely independent.  Over the last few weeks, it’s come to the fore that I have real problems with letting other people care for me, look after me or even do things for me.  I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel like I’m grown up now and I shouldn’t need other people to do things for me; I relish my autonomy and I almost feel like that’s being threatened when a family member, friend or partner tries to help me with something.  I understand that part of being an adult is knowing when to ask for help, but I still don’t like doing it because I feel like I should be capable. In some implicit way, I guess that I might feel that allowing somebody to do something for me is both their suggestion and my subconscious confirmation that I am incapable.  I don’t like feeling like that, but I’m also aware that it’s a complex in my head that doesn’t really exist; people do things for one another out of kindness and friendship bonds.  It’s also hypocritical of me to feel like this, because I am always one of the first to be willing to help another person.  I get afraid when I feel like I might be being too clingy or relying on someone else too much, and I like to have my own space and freedom – I get very edgy and uncomfortable when I feel like my independence is being compromised – even if in reality this isn’t the case. So this is one complex I don’t get.

I then think that perhaps this is related to my upbringing.  My parents had a very stormy relationship, with lots of verbal, mental and emotional abuse thrown in all directions (including mine).  Though I very rarely witnessed physical violence, it’s still taken its toll and it will never be forgotten.  I realise at times that my upbringing has affected the way I see and do things, particularly in relationships and friendships.  I find it difficult to totally trust people, and although I’m initially usually very open with somebody, it doesn’t take long for my paranoia to creep in and wonder why people do what they do, why they might be nice to me or acting a certain way, assuming there’s an ulterior motive or hidden agenda, and usually blaming myself for these things.  Ironically, especially in the past I used to be scared of ending up alone, wondering why I couldn’t find happiness and almost acquiescing to the fact that I might end up this way – and I’m 24 years old!!! To be thinking like this is a bit crazy, really.  And now I am in a relationship with someone who treats me very well, I often get scared that I can’t return his affection enough, that I don’t deserve this, that somehow I’m going to mess it all up.  Why this self-sabotage?  Things are great, and I enjoy our relationship so much when we keep it light, have fun and just relax.  Again, we’re both young, this is normal and natural – and I do deserve this!  But I can’t stop my brain working and I can’t seem to patch over the vulnerability at the core of my heart that whispers these things to me.  I guess that my upbringing and the relationships that have surrounded me (not just my parents, but throughout both sides of my family) have scarred me more deeply than I’m often aware.

It’s ironic that I’m able to be so frank and openly vulnerable on this blog: although I appreciate that some of my readers don’t know me or have never met me, I also know that some of my readers are my friends whom I know personally.  It’s like being able to write on here is a conduit to my innermost feelings, and I can express myself so fully here that I am truly grateful that I started this blog nearly a year ago (which is insane, it’s flown by!).  But being so honest and open is a little strange when in real life I act so strong, so confident and secure. I have a lot to be secure about, it’s true – but on the inside I often get nervous, afraid, insecure and I can be so vulnerable.  I don’t know how to fix that.  Can I really love someone when I’m still learning and having issues with loving myself, essentially?  Why am I so hard on myself?  And why do I have issues with letting someone love me, care for me and be there for me?  I know I am a good person, I know I am a lucky person, and I know that I deserve love.  I work damn hard professionally, educationally and personally at being the best I can be – I have goals I’m constantly working towards.  I also know that I am human, and I accept the humanity and imperfections of others a lot more readily than my own.  It’s just with all these things swirling in my head, I get so insecure about love, both giving and receiving love and letting someone in.  I feel like at times I offer my vulnerability with one hand and then snatch it away with the other if somebody gets too close.  Why am I like this, and how do I get better?