On 'Unapologetic', Rihanna Freed Herself To Be The Voice She Is Now
It was a rollout that turned Rih from fascination to all out cultural obsession.
It seems like a lifetime ago—once every year brought us the holiday of Rihvember—but it’s only been five years. In 2012, Rihanna ended a four-year-four-album run with her seventh LP Unapologetic. The album title seems quite apt in hindsight as we can say it may have been the last instance Rihanna ever had to apologize for herself. Recorded within six months during the promo of her 2011 album, Unapologetic would become the last of the #Rihvember series: a seven year period where Rihanna dropped music at the rate of raindrops essentially.
From 2005 to 2012, the only year that saw us without a Rihanna album was 2008. Ironically, the very last #Rihvember was the first under the official moniker. To be fair, this is the life of a pop star gone rockstar: a nonstop hamster wheel of presentations of self and story to the masses. Now, if we go a few days withOUT Rihanna news, there’s a crisis but it was this rollout that turned Rihanna from fascination to all out cultural obsession.
The rollout, one of her biggest at the time, featured one of the finer finesses seen this decade (but more on that shortly). At the time of the album’s release, Rihanna spent three years under intense scrutiny from the media about her life choices, which can be stifling for anyone in their mid-20s. Those are the key years of simply minding your own messy business. It’s a developmental time where you're unable to keep your mind together because you’re beginning to explore the options of adulting in a real manner. If growing up is a spectrum, your 20s should be filed under “extreme." The Rihanna of 2012 was reeling from half a decade on the road, not just performing but simultaneously creating the catalogue of music that would make her the titan she has now become. The media hounded her with judgement throughout this time about everything from her style to her sound to her life. But the Queen of Clapback seemed ready to turn the tide. Rihanna was tired of apologizing for who she was and what she needed.
The album’s narrative entwined with her wildest year: “Pour It Up," a smoke and stripper anthem spoke to her hard-partying ways. “Nobody's Business” a track featuring ex Chris Brown—with whom she attended the now infamous Christmas Day basketball game a month later—was a big gesture to those who had taken on the role of unnecessary stepparent to her life. Deep cuts like “Get It Over With” and “No Love Allowed” spoke of a woman who was slowly closing herself off and becoming not simply stone hearted but wizened.
Far more than just tabloid fodder, she was in the midst of a suit against a financial adviser who had basically left her bankrupt just a few years before. The three albums she put out in from 2010 to 2012 were a flawless recoup but nobody needed to wonder how much Rih had sacrificed. In that moment, she'd had enough and was not going to hide it.
Now back to that finesse. In an attempt to bring the media closer to her reality, Rihanna and her team invited journalists and bloggers on the #777Tour, a seven day, seven city trip where they would follow her around on a chartered jet. The internet reeled with the opportunity to be close to the budding rockstar—even with all their worries about her behavior, nobody could deny the charm and power of being close to Rihanna in that moment. Yet, not even halfway through the week and the media plane began to decry they were basically being held hostage to the popstar’s schedule. After greeting them with champagne and a short time inside her force field bubble, Rih disappeared only to leave them waiting as the internet updated them on her shopping sprees and hotel cyphers. Many to this day call it “poorly executed” but I have always thought that this was Rihanna’s ultimate calculated revenge. Not only did she give them a taste of her own life on the move but also a bitter “this is what you wanted” for their voyeuristic obsessions.
Even better, she offered no apologies for dragging everyone to hell. Why should she care? She was the bread and butter. Her actual daily life supported their jobs; even their story of luxury kidnapping only existed as a juxtaposition against her new Parisian lingerie—had she been in meetings, not one headline would have mattered. It's often said we should never meet our heroes but this marketing scheme seemed to suggest that maybe our heroes would be just peachy never meeting us. It was a stroke against the entitlement that artists are subjected to constantly.
Rihanna was not just unapologetic, she was unaccommodating on every level. It's worth noting that for all the talk of ANTI being genre-hopping, Unapologetic was a fine-tuning her ability to be the club queen everywhere from Ibiza to London to The West Indies itself. The LP runs the gamut from pop to dubstep to reggae-inflected to stadium ballads. In breaking out, Rihanna freed herself to be the singular voice that she is now so comfortably.
As we look back on the past five years of building an empire, it’s not bad practice to remember that "Diamonds" was panned when it came out—declared everything from “insipid” to “without power.” Audiences who had become used to the Madonna-sexbot with the Bajan accent spoke of not being able to pin the singer down. The single became one of the best selling singles of all time and five years later, everything Fenty touches is gold. It’s a reminder that she was right for making that decision to stop listening to us and stop saying sorry. Rihanna knew who she was all along.
You can stream Rihanna's entire discography here.