Rihanna — Unapologetic (Academic Essay)

Rihanna — Unapologetic (Academic Essay)

“We first met her [Rihanna] in 2005 as a beauty bathed in the light of her native Barbados... and she quickly started growing into her budding pop stardom... . Since February 8, 2009, when her life changed at the angry hands of Chris Brown, she's become increasingly rebellious: depressed and furious..., ready to reclaim her party-hearty sassiness..., and dirty-as-fuck... . Back in 2007, at 19 years old, Rihanna proclaimed that she was a Good Girl Gone Bad; now she's doing her damnedest to live out that prophecy.” (Ganz 2012)

As Spin Magazine’s album review articulates so clearly, Rihanna is an artist who has been presented within a range of genres over the past 7 years. She has embraced a range of musical styles and has challenged notions of genre and the expectations associated with them. Through analysing the marketing of her 7th studio album, Unapologetic in comparison to the musical content of the album it will be possible to raise questions about genre construction and its limitations.

Frith (1998) draws from the work of Fabbri in arguing that genre is constructed by “a definite set of socially accepted rules” that fall under 5 headings. Formal and technical rules are those which govern the musical production and performance. Semiotic rules refer  to the way meaning is conveyed. Behavioural rules, although sometimes hard to distinguish from semiotic rules, describe “performance rituals”. Social and ideological rules describe how a musical community relates to the world around it. Finally, commercial and juridical rules refer to a genre’s relationship to its means of production and promotion.

Musically, there is a difficulty in establishing a “home musical style” (Tagg 2012, p.523) to Unapologetic and therefore there is also difficulty in establishing which elements serve as “genre synecdoche” and which serve as a “style flag” for the “home musical style”. Tagg suggests that if a synecdoche is used frequently enough it may no longer sound foreign to the home stye and may it’s self become an indicator of style. 

Opening track ‘Fresh Off The Runway’ is produced by David Guetta and The-Dream. Vocals and beats are chopped and mixed with digital slow downs as if being mixed live by DJs using the Laptops/CDs that have become common in place of the older vinyl decks. In his review for Billboard, Hampp (2012) claims that “opening with a straight-up hip-hop track produced by the biggest name in EDM quickly sets the tone” for the album. 

The album is laced with synthesisers: the instrumental hallmark of the EDM genre (Butler 2006). From the straight up, 130bpm, club banger ‘Right Now’ (which again features David Guetta) to the slower ballads of ‘Diamonds’ and ‘What Now’ the album is heavily reliant on electronic instrumentation. However, instrumentation is not exclusively electronic. ‘Stay’ relies almost entirely on a piano and ‘What Now’ and ‘Diamonds’ also feature one prominently. We also hear the inclusion of guitars in ‘Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary’, ‘No Love Allowed’ and “Loveeeeeee Song”.

There are a few songs on the album that stand out as belonging to a particular musical style. ‘Right Now’ is the only obvious EDM track on the album. ‘Nobody’s Business’ also sits in a dance music tradition. Through it’s Michael Jackson sample and less technological sounding instrumentation sits more comfortably within the disco style which Ventura (2012, p.67) describes as “a catchy hook above a regular, strong beat” with vocals adding “high soaring melodies”. ‘Jump’ features prominently the wobbling bass lines and drops of Dubstep (Ventura 2012, p.129). ‘No Love Allowed’, with it’s palm muted guitars, dub echoes and emphasis on the off beat is reminiscent of reggae (Ventura 2012, p.68-9). ‘Numb’ stands out as the only track to feature the hip hop stalwart of rap (Ventura 2012, p.82), an addition that comes from the featuring of Eminem. 

Structurally, songs fit to a strophic form (Duckworth 2012 p.379), tying the songs in to the formal and technical rules of pop music (Middleton 1999). Tempo’s vary, but only two fall in to the standard tempo shared by tracks from the EDM genre of between 120-150bpm that Butler (2006, p.34) describes. 

Despite the instrumentation lending its self to a classification within the EDM genre, given the lack of dance music structures and tempos and instead, the prominence of a wider range of musical styles, the album does not sit easily within that classification. Instead, there are a range of intertextual references within the musical production that bring with them not just the sounds of the genre they come from but also all their associated ideals and expectations. 

If there was any clearer indication of the discomfort with which Unapologetic sits within any single genre it is the way new sub-genre descriptions emerge and amalgamations of genre labels are used within reviews. NME coin the term “Swag pop” (Martin 2012) where as Billboard amalgamate three genres with “urban, dubstep-leaning R&B” (Hampp 2012) and go for a softening of the strict R&B description in favour of “urban, R&B-friendly” instead. The Guardian goes in to genre-overload, referencing 4 different genres within the first 2 sentences. “Her seventh album in seven years is all filthy lyrics and crashing dubstep drops: R&B-pop turned up to 11” says Rodgers (2012) where “turned to 11” is an unmistakeable reference to the rock-parody Spinal Tap.

Fig 1. Rihanna,  Unapologetic  - Album cover
Fig 1. Rihanna, Unapologetic - Album cover

Looking at the the album cover (fig. 1) it is possible to understand semiotic aspects of the album. The cover depicts Rihanna naked, posed provocatively and staring at the camera. The photo is obscured by graffitied words and shapes. Her gaze is on the viewer, but her eyes are partially obscured by the added graffiti. In the photograph, we see her from the waist up, which suggests that we are being encouraged to feel close to Rihanna within an intimate social proximity (Machin 2010, p.42). The viewer is to feel engaged in her sexual provocation and intimacy, but kept back by the graffiti. 

The graffiti that obscures her body is written in the style of magic marker graffiti, made with a wide-tipped pen, that became synonymous with Hip Hop Culture (Price 2006 p.28-9). The use of hashtags references the link between the album and social network twitter. In NME’s review of the album, the link is stated clearly: “In the age of Twitter, the gap between pop stars’ personal lives and the music they make is more blurred than ever. Never more so than on Rihanna’s seventh album.” (Martin 2012)

The semiotic communication of the album sleeve is clear: We are to see Rihanna as a strong, sexually empowered artist. She plays on the overtly sexualised image of “overexposed young black female flesh” (Sharpley-Whiting 2007, p.11) that has become synonymous with the hip hop genre and uses that as a display of strength, artistry and perceived intimacy.

To promote the album release, Rihanna, along with over 200 band members, journalists and fans embarked on the ‘777’ tour: 7 shows in 7 countries over 7 days. Billed as a “rock and roll” experience, this was not an attempt to fit Rihanna’s music in to the formal and technical rules of rock and roll (Frith 1998 p.91-93) but rather, through implied semiotic and behavioural reference to the genre, take advantage of its commercial and juridical expectations and incorporate them in to the global brand surrounding Rihanna. (For further analysis, see appendix A)

Unapologetic is released under the Def Jam records - a “hip-hop and r&b label” (Def Jam 2009). HMV Online (2012) categorises the album in “rnb & soul” which they place under “dance / urban”. iTunes classify it under “pop”. Billboard covers the ‘777’ tour under their “hip-hop and r&b” section ‘The Juice’. Although there is some discrepancy in the categorisation of the album, there is a general consensus towards its categorisation within a commercial sphere (as popular music) as well as being broadly considered as “urban” including her placement in the R&B Chart which comes under the “Urban” Chart category (Official Charts Company). 

There is a clear leaning towards the labelling of Rihanna as a “pop star” - Pitchfork (Hooper 2012), NME (Martin 2012) and Spin (Ganz 2012) talk about her directly in those terms, where as billboard talks about “pop music” and “pop ballads” (Hampp 2012). There is also clear recognition that Rihanna is a performer who is globally “popular”, making albums and singles that sell in vast quantities (Lane 2012).

Hess (2007) argues that “hip hop is unique among popular music forms in the extent to which its artists confront the commercial nature of their music”. From the semiotic “bling” to the open lyrical celebration of wealth (which Unapologetic draws from openly in the track ‘Pour It Up’) Hip Hop is a genre that has openly embraced it’s commerciality. In painting Rihanna’s success with brush of hip hop, she is endowed with the ability to celebrate her commerciality whilst maintaining authenticity as an artist. 

In conclusion, we see that genre construction is not a set of clearly defined, unchangeable rules. Instead, there are blurred boundaries between genres, the rules of which are being constantly re-examined and changed over time. Whilst we can find it helpful to talk in broad terms to find ways with which to understand the music we are listening to and the social context it appears in, it may well be that, as Negus (1999 p.29) argues, although genre is constructed through social consensus, it is actually most useful to the people who want to sell us something.

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Appendix A

The ‘777’ tour was described by Elle magazine as a “rock and roll fantasy” (Ellen 20012), Rolling Stone call it “a rock & roll fantasy camp” (Rosenthal 2012), The Quietus describe it as “proper rock star flamboyance, excess and glamour” (Rogers 2012) and Billboard quote Rihanna as calling the experience  “a random rock & roll tour” (Ramirez 2012). If the tour is purposefully evocative of rock and roll tours, the question has to be raised as to why an album in which a guitar can barely be heard is being promoted in this way?

Rock has traditionally been thought of as being a genre that has valued the notion of the album as a body work, and has such sold albums in greater units than Pop music which has focussed on the single (Warner 2003, p.4). By referencing rock and roll through the tour, the album is linked to the genre and the accompanying expectations of the “rock album” as an artistic body of work as well as its commercial success. Popjustice argues that “this whole ’777 tour turns into anarchy’ thing fits perfectly with her rude girl popstar persona” (O’Mance 2012).