Rihanna, "Unapologetic" (Def Jam)

On her seventh studio album, the singer one-ups the exploitation industry by dueting with her former boyfriend and abuser, Chris Brown, to declare that their tempestuous romance is "Nobody's Business." Initial reaction: This dysfunctional couple has turned the track into a sick marketing ploy. You can even dance to it! But there's no escaping that Brown battered Rihanna in an ugly lover's spat in 2009. He pleaded guilty to felony assault and received probation. Both artists resumed their careers under a microscope, their every word parsed for hints about their relationship.

With "Unapologetic," Rihanna turns contemplative again, enlisting an army of production gurus, song massagers and hit-makers, from dance maven David Guetta to ace R&B songwriter Dream. Yet nearly every song feels as if it's telling her story, painting a larger picture than just the haphazard collection of singles that was "Loud" (2010) and "Talk That Talk" (2011).

Rihanna hasn't entirely abandoned hooky, up-tempo pop anthems. "Unapologetic" continues her embrace of cutting-edge, Skrillex-era dance rhythms, the squelching synthesizers and wobbly bass lines of dubstep. "Phresh off the Runway," "Jump" and "Pour It Up" celebrate live-for-the-moment hedonism. But in the context of an album dominated by ballads and at least superficially introspective lyrics, they feel like respites.

Much of "Unapologetic" is a tough listen, ostensibly a pop album from one of the biggest pop stars of our time that's dark and emotionally complex. Despite what Rihanna claims on "Nobody's Business," many of the songs portray a narrator who is troubled, anxiety-ridden, lost. Fans of celebrity subtext could wallow for months in the hints and allusions. Those who abhor exploitive marketing may be drawn to the songs like a bad car crash. How much of this is Rihanna and how much of it is just a soap-opera steroid, a way to pump up sales? That the question even has to be asked is disturbing.

GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune

Kid Rock, "Rebel Soul" (Atlantic)


Whatever one might say about Kid Rock, you can't say he isn't dedicated: to repping his beloved hometown Detroit, to acknowledging his own musical heroes -- from Bob Seger to Run DMC -- to recognizing the power of a good time. Rock's been doing all that since his '90s breakthrough, but it's been a long time since he's sounded like he's having as much fun doing it as he does here.

The CD offers his signature blend of rock, country, hip-hop and pop with a slightly larger emphasis placed on the country sensibility, with a few well-placed shots of soul. The clutch of bona fide, roll 'em down, turn it up car crankers -- including the Stones-y "Chickens in the Pen" and "3 CATT Boogie" -- compensate for the more boilerplate raunch-and-rollers and Auto-tuned ballads.

SARAH RODMAN, Boston Globe