First Listen: Rihanna Previews 'Unapologetic' Album in NYC
First Listen: Rihanna Previews 'Unapologetic' Album in NYC

With her seventh album in seven years, "Unapologetic," Rihanna is finally growing up. Over the past few years, the Bajan crooner's albums were dotted with kitschy double entendres about private parts ("Cockiness (Love It)") and hat-tip anthems to knocking back shots ("Cheers (Drink to That)"). Her public image has been both slandered and bolstered by her personal decisions: she's back in a friendship with her former lover Chris Brown, has been snapped by the paparazzi smoking marijuana on vacation and tweets expletives in strings.

But on "Unapologetic" (Nov. 19), pop's busiest bad girl shapes up, focusing on matters of the heart over flaunting her musical middle finger. Yesterday (Nov. 10), Rihanna debuted the album for fans and press at Jay-Z's 40/40 Club in Manhattan. To gain entry to the event, Rih Rih permitted access only to those who brought supplies for victims of Hurricane Sandy, adding to her own donation of 1,000 sleeping bags to the Daily News' Hurricane Sandy relief effort.

Rihanna arrived after the album's first play-through, making her way to VIP in black stockings, untied Timberland boots and a red-and-gold jacket adorned with bird stitching. She greeted label personnel including Roc Nation's Jay Brown and Def Jam's Gabe Tesoriero, demurely sipping a drink as fans gawked from general admission.

Her professionalism shone through, another facet of the confident yet love-perplexed grown woman behind "Unapologetic." For an album title that underlines a lack of personal remorse, the 24-year-old is simultaneously vulnerable and commanding on the 14-track offering, enlisting guests including Future, Eminem, Chris Brown, David Guetta and Mikky Ekko to help shape the diverse project.

There are times where she lets her walls crumble, trading pledges of romantic allegiance to Ekko on the emotive ballad "Stay." She gives into urges on "Loveeeeeee Song" featuring Future, where the two duet, "I don't want to give you the wrong impression / I just want your love and affection." And on album standout "Get It Over With," co-written by James Fauntleroy and Brian Seals, her voice floats over a smoldering arrangement, hovering above a warren of harmonies. "I keep wondering, won't you just fucking rain / And get it over with?" she sings.

Though self-reflective, she still likes to have fun. Ri playfully samples Ginuwine's hump-dance anthem "Pony" on "Jump," cutting the deadpan chorus with a blistering dubstep breakdown. Previous collaborator David Guetta helms the sinister opener "Phresh Off the Runway" and zippy "Right Now," while "Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary" interpolates The Police's "Message in a Bottle."

The LP's most surprising delight comes in the form of her duet with Chris Brown, "Nobody's Business," where they trade lines over a disco-kissed beat. "You'll always be my boy," she sings, to which he responds, "You'll always be my girl."

It's at the end of the album that Rihanna sheds light on her greatest frienemy: the fame. Onlookers who swarmed her upon arrival were given a listen to the Emeli Sandé-penned deluxe edition bonus track "Half of Me," a percussive ballad where the heroine explains that she's more than just surface. "I'm the type that don't give a fuck," she sings, with a caveat. "Saw me on the television, that's just the half / You saw the half of it / This is the life I live, and that's just the half of it." It's an introspective cap to an album that tightropes between fleeting youth and accepting responsibility, in matters both public and private.