- - Monday, November 19, 2012

Unapologetic

Rihanna

Def Jam

★★

Like clockwork, Rihanna rings in the holiday season with “Unapologetic,” her seventh album in seven years.

What is there to be said that hasn’t been said before? A master at keeping herself current, Rihanna puts together another mixed bag of dance tracks, R&B tunes and reggae-flavored pop songs with help from this year’s hippest producers. She pads the guest list with cameos by old friends (Eminem) and new faces (Pluto), and she turns to top-tier studio wizards including David Guetta and Benny Blanco, hoping to keep “Unapologetic” from sounding like recycled parts.

The thing is, modern music doesn’t get more recycled than this. “Unapologetic” is the sound of a musician running out of new ideas and turning to old ones instead, hoping they’ll look different after they’re ground up and reassembled into new shapes. They don’t.

The album’s saving grace is a cameo appearance by Mikky Ekko, a poppy, avant-garde songwriter who isn’t even popular enough to have his own Wikipedia page. The two sing in unison on the surprisingly moving “Stay,” a tender ballad on an album filled with calculated club bangers. The Eminem duet doesn’t fare half as well, though, and the predictable appearance by Chris Brown — Rihanna’s controversial ex-boyfriend, still in the hot seat after assaulting her in 2009 — feels like a cheap move.

“You’ll always be mine,” Rihanna promises her ex on “Nobody’s Business,” a song that borrows its title and melody from Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Brown chimes in during the next verse, telling the whole world that his relationship with Rihanna is nobody’s business. It is, though, isn’t it? If these two insist on setting their tumultuous relationship to music, and the resulting song is deliberately placed on the biggest album of the fall, doesn’t that make it our business?

That’s the biggest problem with “Unapologetic.” It isn’t the lack of big, hook-laden pop songs like “We Found Love.” It’s the sinking feeling that Rihanna, the unfortunate victim of an abusive relationship, is exploiting the whole debacle. Later, when she sings, “You took the best years of my life,” you have a hard time believing her.

Rebel Soul

Kid Rock

Atlantic

★★

Kid Rock may be getting older, but he still isn’t interested in growing up. On “Rebel Soul,” the 40-something rocker indulges his frat-boy whims like a college undergrad, singing about women, beer, guns and hot tubs in a voice that’s as rough as a Sunday morning hangover.

The last time we heard from Mr. Rock, he was channeling Bob Seger on 2010’s “Born Free,” an album that traded his hip-hop roots for something that skewed closer to smart, grown-up classic rock. “Rebel Soul” is a different animal. The soulful backup singers and fiery guitar riffs are still present, and several songs go out of their way to give shout-outs to rock ‘n’ rollers such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Still, there’s a sleazy, scuzzy vibe to these songs, most of which would sound more appropriate blasting from the speakers of a rowdy gentlemen’s club.

The whole thing is meant to be a tribute to blue-collar America, but don’t confuse “Rebel Soul” for something along the lines of Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp. Mr. Rock doesn’t write songs about people rolling up their sleeves and breaking their backs for a paycheck; he writes about what those people do on the weekends, after they’ve clocked out and driven to the closest bar. He’s the main character in almost every tune, too, whooping up a storm of white-trash hedonism during “Redneck Paradise” and raising a toast to his hometown in “Detroit, Michigan.”

Mr. Rock sings about America, but it’s a skewed version of America, one that’s defined by NASCAR, chicken wings and swimsuit models. During one song, he kicks one of those models out of a hot tub, directing a stream of expletives her way before climbing back into the water with several of her friends. Is that what makes you a rebel, Mr. Rock? Or does it just make you a jerk?