Rihanna’s Navy was at attention in New York City on Friday night when the pop princess held a listening party for her upcoming album, Unapologetic. Frenzied fans and industry stiffs brushed shoulders at the 40/40 Club as a steady stream of Ri’s biggest hits blared from the speakers and her latest video, “Diamonds,” looped endlessly on plasma screens. “Let’s get those tweets going!” the DJ shouted, presumably unaware that patrons were asked to check their phones at the door to avoid leaks. Instead, guests brought canned foods, toiletries and other supplies for Hurricane Sandy victims in exchange for a preview of the album before it hits stores on November 19th.
The record opened with “Fresh Off The Runway,” which finds Rihanna sing-rapping copious F-bombs over a mid-tempo frantic instrumental. She flirts with hip-hop stylings throughout much of the first act, pulling in the infamous trap rhythm and screwed vocal samples that have crawled from rap’s drug-obsessed fringes to metropolitan clubs over the past few years. The influence of contemporary trapsters ASAP Rocky and Juicy J is particularly apparent on tracks like “Pour It Up,” a rehash of the “Bandz Make Her Dance” instrumental over which Rihanna drips with strip-club cocksure: “All I see is signs, all I see is dollar signs,” and to the haters: “I still got more money.”
A few friends join the party too. Eminem spits some breakneck bars on the down-tempo, foghorn driven “Numb,” and Future continues his brilliant transition from club king to autotuned crooner on “Loveeeee Song.” “I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, I need love and affection,” he duets with Rihanna over a 40-esque ooze-fest that may be the best track on the album. David Guetta laces “Right Now” with some warbling dubstep that got attendees excited, and at one point Rihanna interpolates Genuine’s “Pony” with spectacular, if not hilarious, results.
But of course, the feature that had fans chattering the most was Rihanna’s duet with Chris Brown, “Nobodies Business” – the crowd broke out in applause at the DJ’s mere mention of the title. “You’ll always be my boy, I’ll always be your girl,” Rihanna sings over a two-step-friendly funk track. “And it ain’t nobody’s business but mine and my baby.” Chris returns with words just as sweet: “Your love is infectious, let’s make out in this Lexus,” he serenades. The two, on song at least, appear rigid in their ways, driven by a love that doesn’t seek permission or approval. In light of their troubled relationship, the sentiment may be difficult for some to bear, but it’s also an extremely honest depiction of young love, the kind of relationship that feels affirmed by just how complex and painful it is. It’s no coincidence the very next track finds her lamenting “you took the best years of my life, but what’s love without tragedy?”
Rihanna’s personal strife in the public eye hangs like a cloud over Unapologetic. Hooks like “Round and around we go, now tell me how you know” and “I don’t know where to go, I don’t know how to feel” paint a young girl confused and in limbo, steadfast in her opinions but not sure how yet to explain them when the whole world’s watching. On “Mother Mary” she vents, “I’m from the left side of an island, never thought this many people would know my name.” It’s no wonder the singer has to roll a blunt or two to clear her head on “Get It Over With”: “I’m wondering, wondering, why you keep thundering, won’t you just fucking rain . . . let’s get it over with, get high and float again.”
As the DJ started the album up a second time, Rihanna made a surprise appearance to swarms of fans and camera flashes, but didn’t address the crowd or mingle for too long. Her devotees didn’t ask for any explanations – the music clearly said all they needed to hear.