RiRi’s highest Jukebox score in over a year (at least as lead artist)…
Iain Mew: I have no idea who Mikky Ekko is. Maybe that actually helps it to be more affecting when his pinched and uncertain falsetto comes in to sing “it’s not much of a life you’re living.” The song is vague enough that the surface love duet isn’t the only or most interesting thing on offer, and even in that Rihanna’s singing “not really sure how to feel about it.” As Ekko’s bit starkly cuts through, it’s like Rihanna wants to remain Unapologetic so she’s outsourced all the bigger uncertainties to someone weaker sounding to contrast her impressive stoicism. The rest of the song is barely there, but it’s worth it.
Doug Robertson: Well, it’s been at least a week since her last release, so it must be time for yet another Rihanna single. She’s now releasing music with the sort of speed and aggression previously seen only in machine guns, but being so prolific and having such a scattershot policy means that quality control doesn’t always get a look in and not every pop bullet fired will actually hit the target. Which is presumably why this sort of dull plodding piano-based balladry that has all the emotional core of Truckosaurus and all the point of a pair of safety scissors gets released rather than anything people might actually want to hear.
Alfred Soto: Playing lovelorn over boring piano chords, Our Beloved Entertainer actually delivers a performance more affecting than her lucky co-singer, especially when halfway through they harmonize credibly. Her best in a while.
Anthony Easton: Can I have a minute to talk about how lovely and perfect Rihanna’s voice is, tender and faded in the midst of that piano swell? Her work this year has been a masterpiece of ennui, but the sweetness and exhausted melancholy of this is just collapsing affectless anhedonia. Then she sings “staaaaaaaaaaay” and Mikky comes in, and both sing round, round, round, somewhere between Joni Mitchell’s carousel and Dusty’s windmills but with less eccentric details. Perfectly cold.
Patrick St. Michel: Gorgeous, but nothing else really to latch onto.
Will Adams: Hard to say whether this counts as an improvement from “Diamonds.” She’s done away with the vowel bending but kept the boring.
Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: Four seconds into “Stay,” you can briefly hear the sound of a swift breath inwards or a piano stool being adjusted. I couldn’t decide what the sound was — breath or stool? breath or stool? — and it distracted me for much of the song. I began to wonder if the sound was definitely audible, causing me to rewind again and again as though to confirm, yes, it’s there. Then I thought if the sound was there on purpose. Imagine you’re in the final Unapologetic mastering with Rihanna and Joie Manda and Future Hendrix and whoever else came through — who is the person that mentions the ghostly puff/creak sound? Do they mention the ghostly puff/creak sound? Is it maintained as a small moment that shows the cracks in the façade of “Stay”’s otherwise ultra-professional performance? Was it a natural moment, kept in to uphold a stripped-bare, “genuine” approach, or was it created for that same reason by a Roc Nation intern in a hallway somewhere? I thought about this for three minutes and forty-five seconds, when I was snapped out of it by the sound of digital waves cascading over the song’s dying notes, an intrusion by machinery on something intended as naked and truly worthy. It touched me as much as the mystery sound did at the start. In between those points, there was a song and it was okay, I guess.
Brad Shoup: Does anyone have a more au courant name than “Mikky Ekko”? I’m a little worried about a guy whose debut EP was titled Strange Fruit, and a guy who maintains an association with a singer-songwriter collective called Ten Out of Tenn. I suspect we’re getting the Ryan Tedder we deserve. Rihanna trounces his Bruno Martian croon with a rash of good instincts: upright rumble, a caressed lyric, an immunity to fireworks. (To be fair, Ekko’s a songwriter/producer here.) The probing nature of the production butts up against the George Harrison nick and the “round and around we go” placeholder, but it’s wonderful to hear Ri-Ri so restful.
Katherine St Asaph: How the hell did this Mikky Ekko guy score a catbird seat on the Rihanna album? Dues-paying? He’s done some, but appearing alongside Future and Eminem requires about another year’s worth. (Insert joke about how appearing alongside Eminem itself constitutes paying dues.) Scattershot personnel experimentation? Nothing Rihanna does is scattershot, and Mike Will, Oak and The-Dream are hardly unknowns. Impersonating a porn star? Been done. So what gives? Well, besides exactly fitting Unapologetic‘s two-prong strategy: a spill of syrupy singles for urban radio (which aren’t even necessary, thanks to Billboard, but never mind that), then piano ponderousness for everyone else. This one’s practically mumblecore, where everyone sings like they’re sighing and where “not really sure how to feel about it” is prelude to a kiss. Predictably, entire volumes of biographical criticism have been read into this, but it’s got as much to do with that certain blonde butt as the much-bandied, millennials’-doing end of courtship. Which could still be something, granted, but you’d have to read a lot into quite a little ballad.