Rihanna: "Unapologetic"

Rihanna: The Billboard Cover Story
Rihanna: "Unapologetic"

Tuesday, Nov. 6, wasn't just Election Day for Jay Brown. It was also the day the Roc Nation president/­co-founder  had to hand over the final cut of Rihanna's seventh album, "Unapologetic," just 13 days before its scheduled release.

"We had our songs ready way beforehand, but we never stop recording," Brown says a week before "Unapologetic"'s release. "If we can record a month later, two months later, all the way to Nov. 6, we're never going to stop until that date. We're never content."

Hours after Brown turned in the album at 6 a.m., 90-second snippets intended for iTunes were leaked online. Fans were familiar with a good chunk of Unapologetic by mid-afternoon. Three days later, Rihanna debuted the album in full at a private listening event at New York's 40/40 Club (owned by Roc Nation co-founder Jay-Z), unveiling some of her rawest, urban-leaning music to date and a few pop surprises.

"She's the type of artist that makes everybody go outside their comfort zone-she's not trying to do a song that's already been done," says Island Def Jam VP of A&R Abou "Bu" Thiam, who's worked on Rihanna's records since 2010's "Loud" (which has sold 1.7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan). "She went crazy, especially with the vocals she cut for these sessions, because she just felt like it would be a really huge record. Nobody had ever heard Rihanna do a record like this. She does all kinds of songs for every album that no one's heard, like 'Birthday Cake' or 'Man Down,' which are great, unexpected moments. We wanted even more of those for Unapologetic."

Lead track "Phresh Out the Runway" is a surprise production pairing between the-Dream and David Guetta that finds the latter taking a break from arena-sized EDM pop, while the Mike WiLL Made It-helmed "Pour It Up" puts a feminine spin on the cash-and-strippers braggadocio that permeates hip-hop. ("Valet costs a hundred bills [and I still got my money]/Gold all up in my grill" she taunts over a menacing beat.) The Ginuwine-sampling "Jump" features an epic, Skrillex-worthy dubstep-wobble breakdown, while Future duet "Loveeeeeee Song" sounds custom-made for Rihanna's R&B core. Then there's the gut-punching ballad "Stay," featuring Mikky Ekko, which the singer debuted the night following the listening event on "Saturday Night Live"; the pop-step powerhouse "What Now"; and the seven-minute suite "Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary," which channels the Police. Most intriguing of all to fans is a new Chris Brown duet, "Nobodies Business," that shocks only by being a straightforward feel-good '90s dancefloor stepper.

Since being formally announced just a handful of weeks prior in late September, "Unapologetic" had quickly become one of the year's most anticipated releases by following what has been a reliable formula for Rihanna albums. Since 2009's Rated R, Rihanna has released a new million-plus-selling album every November, churning out five or six singles apiece in quick succession before it's time for the next one.

"We're not creating nothing new," Brown says, referencing the multiple-albums-a-year strategy employed by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles in their heyday. "She's always making music, because she loves it. So the strategy starts as soon as we get the idea for the next album. Are we going to release another album next year? I don't know. But it's just a natural thing for her. She'll say, 'I'm going to do a record,' and the next thing I do is focus on going on tour."

Though the album appeared to have come out of thin air, with the shortest turnaround from announcement to release in Rihanna's seven-album cycle, in actuality the songwriting process started in early June. That's when Brown and Rihanna's A&R team rented out Metropolis Studios in London to begin a series of songwriting camps for the artist's next project. A few old friends were asked to enlist potential collaborators, too. Jon Platt, formerly of EMI Music Publishing who signed Rihanna to her first publishing deal, brought Sia Furler (David Guetta's "Titanium," Ne-Yo's "Let Me Love You") to the table for lead single "Diamonds," while longtime Rihanna producers Stargate teamed her with U.K. singer/songwriter Emeli Sandé for bonus track "Half of Me."

The fact that Unapologetic is perhaps Rihanna's most urban, R&B-friendly album to date, complete with a hip-hop track from Guetta, is also a sign that a reversal of the EDM-R&B trend she helped kickstart may be afoot.

"Urban music was pop for the '90s when Bad Boy had their crazy reign and then you had the Beyoncé and the Usher records," says Mike WiLL Made It, the producer behind Rihanna's lady-baller anthem "Pour It Up" as well as 2 Chainz' "No Lie" and Juicy J's "Bandz A Make Her Dance." "Real dope music is coming back. I feel like that's part of my job. Being 23, being young and coming in the game, and Rihanna being 24-we wanted to make a song that would be a game-changer. After they hear 'Pour It Up,' girls won't be scared to flex, won't be scared to talk about their money."

The reception for lead single "Diamonds," a noted left turn from the EDM-powered and sex-crazed singles released from 2011's Talk That Talk, also bodes well for Rihanna's next musical direction. A chart-topper on Billboard's R&B Songs chart, it ascends to No. 2 on the Hot 100 this week, and is a strong contender for the No. 1 spot. "All the formats matter. She's very focused on giving the broadest reach of music possible," says Steve Bartels, president/COO of Island Def Jam Music Group. "'Diamonds' covers four to five different formats in terms of reach-that's the depth of a real superstar."

Rihanna herself was more collaborative than usual, contributing to five of the songs including Guetta's "Right Now" and "Phresh Out the Runway" as well as "Nobodies Business" and "Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary." Brown says, "She's not here to make a record and take direction. Every record that has ever come she's always changed something. There's only been a few records in her career where she didn't have to do anything-'We Found Love' was perfect, 'Diamonds' was perfect. But that's the reason the songs sound so perfect-she talks to the producer and the songwriters and she works it out."

Statistically, Rihanna is an anomaly for someone who turned 24 in February. She has sold 8.7 million albums in the United States and a staggering 58 million digital songs as a lead artist, according to SoundScan. On the Hot 100, she's had 11 No. 1 singles, tying her with Whitney Houston for most chart-toppers. Should "Diamonds" become her 12th No. 1, she'd tie with Madonna and the Supremes in fourth place behind the Beatles (20), Mariah Carey (18) and Michael Jackson (13) for most No. 1s in Hot 100 history. She also has six Grammy Awards, three MTV Video Music Awards, five American Music Awards, 18 Billboard Music Awards and the hard-earned title of Facebook's most-liked public figure with 62 million likes also to her name.

"Rihanna is a global superstar without equal," says Barry Weiss, chairman/CEO of Island Def Jam Music Group and Republic Records. "Her vision and passion for her craft, her unmatched work ethic, her impeccable taste and artistry, her fearlessness and preternatural ability to move the culture, inspire and remind us why we are lucky to be in this business."

Yet one distinction she's yet to claim is a No. 1 album in America, despite coming close with Good Gone Girl Bad, which reached No. 2 in 2007. "It'd be great if she gets one, but she's broken every other record out there just about," Brown says with a shrug. "The process is to make good music, and when you make good music, everything plays itself out. It's great that people take it tastefully and piece by piece and they're still buying. It's about the marathon, not the sprint."

 And Rihanna's rekindled friendship with Chris Brown has also kept her under heavy public scrutiny, which didn't help matters in February when a pair of remixes of the former couple's current singles "Turn Up the Music" and "Birthday Cake" were released as surprise duets. Though neither was released commercially, both took off at radio despite early backlash. "'Birthday Cake,' that was a moment in time. It was a viral, consumer-driven reality," Bartels says. "Ultimately Rihanna drives her creative vision. Our job is to take that and support it in the marketplace. She's been very vocal about where she stands and where she feels."

 Island Def Jam's Thiam says the Brown duet "Nobodies Business" is a leading candidate for Unapologetic's second single, but the label team "always takes the approach of putting the record out, getting feedback and letting people decide where to take it from there. There's a lot of big records on the album, but we want the people to decide what they want to be next."

Ultimately, Roc Nation's Brown will measure the success of "Unapologetic" not in units but in the way that it enhances Rihanna's global status.

"She's in a phase where she's going from being cultural to iconic. It's good for her to do her own thing and not do the norm and stretch a little," Brown says. "She knows that her fans love her being honest about who she is, and that's why she named the album that way-she's not going to apologize for who she is."

 

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