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>Pop

Rihanna

Unapologetic

[Island/Def Jam]

2 stars (out of 4)

Rihanna's seventh album finds the Barbadian pop-R&B star up to her usual tricks, offering a m้lange of dance-based pop tropes with varying degrees of conviction. Sometimes she nails it, offering pop confections in her stoned-sounding drawl, and the blend of big hooks and bigger beats pays off ("Diamonds," "Jump," "What Now"). Sometimes, it's simply a mess of computer programming with nary a hint of soul (the rest of the album).

What stands out head and shoulders above the rest is the creepiness factor that informs the singer's irreverent stance toward her critics – particularly those who offered unsolicited opinions regarding her relationship with singer Chris Brown. That relationship yielded some heavily publicized abuse; Brown beat the singer severely, landing her in the hospital in the crescendo of what she later described as an ongoing atmosphere of violence and abuse. On "Nobody's Business," Rihanna invites Brown into the studio for a duet in which true love is declared. It's frankly more than a little bit disturbing to hear the two proclaiming their love for each other, particularly if you happened to see any of the heavily publicized photos of Rihanna's face following Brown's assault. All of this is, of course, "Nobody's Business" but her own. But it's sick and twisted, nonetheless.

Overproduction did not become "the thing to do" solely at Rihanna's behest – the tendency to beat every decent idea into submission beneath ham-fisted technological frippery has been the norm for more than a decade. But Rihanna is as guilty as anyone of relying on recording studio smoke and mirrors to mask her paucity of fully fleshed ideas. "Unapologetic" is a bit of a mess. It's an album that is likely to be remembered in a few years time merely as "that record where she made lovey-lovey with the guy who beat her up." And that's both sad and disgusting.

– Jeff Miers

***

>Rock

Kid Rock

Rebel Soul

[Atlantic]

2 stars

It appears Kid Rock has run out of ideas.

OK, that might be a tad bit unfair – the Kid has had more than one idea over the years. In fact, his first conceit involved casting himself as a Caucasian rapper who also happened to love metal. That hybrid soon gave way to an apparent Bob Seger obsession. Finally, by the middle of the last decade, we were growing accustomed to accepting the once rap-based Kid Rock as a sort of Southern rock/Detroit soul mash-up.

That seems to be where he's stuck with "Rebel Soul." A recycled riff here, a laundry list of name-checks there; a ZZ Top-ish guitar figure married to a mildly hip-hop informed groove over yonder, and a Seger retread right up in your face. That's what the Kid does this time around, in between assuring us that he is both rebel and visionary, while offering no music to back up such brazen claims.

You're either into the joke or not, and if you fall into the latter category, "Rebel Soul" won't change your mind. Listening to the whole thing from front to back will make you feel like you walked into the Kid's high school-era bedroom and found him listening to Seger's "Night Moves" while "air jamming" in front of the mirror. Fans will find this charming, others – not so much.

Things don't get off to a particularly promising start with "Chickens In the Pen," a greasy reiteration of a '70s Southern rock trope, replete with faux-gospel backing vocals. "Let's Ride" treads similar terrain, this time with the help of a direct quote from Seger's "The Fire Down Below." As embarrassingly overstated as "Detroit Michigan" is – the tune needlessly reminds us that Kid Rock is from Detroit, and then name-checks Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Hitsville USA, Rosa Parks and, you guessed it, Seger – it becomes even more so when you realize that the whole thing moves on the thinnest of hackneyed dirt-rock shuffles.

On the upside, the production – handled by Kid Rock this time – is refreshingly sparse and organic, for the most part. And the Kid's buddies in the Twisted Brown Trucker Band help keep the proceedings rooted, offering a live band feel that keeps the production under control. It's the songwriting – Kid Rock's version of collage art – that is most clearly lacking.

Harmless, really, all of it. However, if, unlike Kid Rock, you don't necessarily see Seger as the second coming, you're in for some rough going.

– J.M.

***

>Jazz

Louis Armstrong

The Okeh, Columbia and RCA Victor Recordings: 1925-1933

[Sony Legacy]

4 stars

*

Bessie Smith

The Complete Columbia Recordings

[Sony Legacy]

4 stars

These are cornerstones of American music. Period.

So exalted and fundamental is what's on these two majestic 10-disc box sets for the gift season that they are perfect for ears hungry for the music that was essential, in a way, to everything that followed and for gift givers with a passion to fill those ears as a mark of love and respect.

If, for instance, you'd caught a sober, reflective Jimi Hendrix on his way out the door for a suitably Hendrixian night, he'd have gladly admitted that if Louis Armstrong hadn't been among the precious few who virtually invented the improviser's solo role in American music, there would have been no Jimi Hendrix. Nor would there have been a Hendrix – or a Mick Jagger or Kanye West for that matter – if Bessie Smith hadn't been a blues singer not only larger than life but larger than most people's idea of life. (Smith's was a musical stardom that created all of its own rules. Other people either got it. Or they didn't.)

Listeners in the 21st century might have to teach themselves the creative astonishments of the music underneath the primitive recording technology and the pervasive historical influence. So, too, may they have to deal with the ineluctable monotony of Smith in vast quantity and the large variety of commercial inanity that was as essential to Armstrong's public career as the lightning bolt masterworks.

The trick, of course, with both is to never listen to more than two discs in one sitting. (And in addition with Armstrong, to make sure that every sitting involves either disc three with "Potato Head Blues" or "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" or "Hotter Than That" and disc four with Earl Hines and Armstrong on "Weather Bird," "St. James Infirmary" and "Tight Like This.")

In the racial world of the 21st century with President Obama in the White House, the duet of Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael on the original "Rockin' Chair" – with Armstrong, always, being the "son" ordered to fetch the gin by a white "father" – requires an indulgent understanding of exactly how much sophisticated racial irony was involved (not as much as the riotously subversive Fats Waller but a lot). But to listen to the primal recording years of Armstrong is to hear the roar of communal genius, if neither the notes or remasterings are ideal.

To listen to Smith's voice is to encounter a wonder of nature so large that it mooted almost entirely the technology that housed it (in his notes, Ken Romanowski comically refers to her voice as "contralto"). There are some very stark blues here – "Backwater Blues," "Send Me to the Lectric Chair" – that offset the string of 1928 double entendres on "Empty Bed Blues," "Put It Right Here or Keep it Out There," "I'm Wild About That Thing" and "You've Got to Give Me Some."

The final disc of the Smith box is Chris Albertson's interview with her ribald, joyously indiscreet niece by marriage Ruby Smith. You'll have to decide for yourself how much is truth and how much is the raucous legend-making essential to the ongoing life of the blues. My guess? About 60 percent.

– Jeff Simon