Overly tiresome fetish-flirting can't drag the brilliantly adventurous and masterfully measured pop queen down
You don’t often get revealing moments at album playbacks. Excellent canapés and cheeky cocktails on diamanté-dripping trays, yes; epiphanies, no. So last month at London’s Sketch bar, when [a]Rihanna[/a] was asked by a besuited Capital FM DJ as they introduced her new track ‘[b]Cheers (Drink To That)[/b]’ whether she really was prone to a bevvy, her wavering response of “Well, it’s mostly when I eat that I drink…” was telling. Imagine what [a]MIA[/a] or even [a]Lady Gaga[/a] would have replied. Something funny, something ridiculous, something them. [a]Rihanna[/a] wonders whether she should admit to having a nice glass of Chardonnay with her dinner occasionally.
The song itself, being a low-slung and loping rock-pop number about getting hammered, sung by an insanely hot 22-year-old woman, is brilliant and guaranteed to be massive. And while in its confines [a]Rihanna[/a] twists her unique, instantly recognisable voice to fit, sounding dark, thick, almost Nico-ish in places, if you were forced to think about whether you believed that she would ever actually say “[i]Here’s to the freakin’ weekend/I’ll drink to that[/i]”, you would have to say no. As a singer, she’s a model rather than an actress; her songs are clothes that she wears rather than roles she inhabits, and their success depends on a wise choice of fit and style.
One get-up that’s definitely starting to grate is her super-empowered fetish vixen, apparently loosely based on Rosario Dawson’s Gail in Sin City, a randy strap-and-stud-bound Valkyrie. On ‘[b]Rated R[/b]’ this seemed a clever escape from the cloying victim role that could have consumed her public image, but it starts to wear thin on (sigh) ‘[b]S&M[/b]’ on which she can be found claiming “[i]Sticks and stones may break my bones but whips and chains excite me[/i]”.
‘[b]Skin[/b]’, a slow-burn R&B number, rather overlabours its point (being naked is good) as [a]Rihanna[/a] pours on the sexy voice like Dervla Kirwan in the M&S ads crooning “[i]Y’know I like it rough[/i]”. Oh Ri-Ri, can’t we just have a nice sit down and a chat? You can only wonder what she’d say if a besuited DJ asked her if she really was partial to a ball gag and cat o’nine tails…
Overall though, the fit of the rest of the album is admirable. If ‘[b]Rated R[/b]’ seemed disparate sometimes, ‘[b]Loud[/b]’’s experiments feel more organic, its tone better paced, from the Caribbean-tinged anthem for doomed youth of ‘[b]Man Down[/b]’ via the glossy, dark tectonic beats of ‘[b]What’s My Name?[/b]’ (featuring [a]Drake[/a]) to the ludicrously banging trancepop of ‘[b]Only Girl (In The World)[/b]’.
The only track that drops the ball is ‘[b]California King Bed[/b]’, a howler of a ballad, with shlocky acoustic intro, trite piano and a faux-Slash solo that punctures the album’s fresh unity. If you like that sort of thing… well, then you really shouldn’t. And it’s a shame, because otherwise she’d have nailed her stated aim to produce a no-skip record.
‘[b]Raining Men[/b]’, a bold, ballsy, [a]MIA[/a]-ish collaboration with [a]Nicki Minaj[/a] plays to the strengths of both [a]Rihanna[/a] and the new trickster princess of hip-pop. There’s another great contrast in Pt II of ‘[b]Love The Way You Lie[/b]’. With the balance of vocals neatly flipped and extra cavernous beats ramping up the drama, it wallows ever-deeper in the tortured relationship sketched out in Pt I. [a]Eminem[/a] at points is practically screaming with rage, and sounding, frankly, mental. The contrast with [a]Rihanna[/a]’s smoothly pitched pain (“[i]Maybe I’m a masochist/Try to run but I don’t wanna never leave[/i]”) is delicious.
So does it matter that you never quite believe in it, that this never sounds like something she’s actually lived? Not in the least. That voice, when she exploits the grit of that Barbadian burr to the max, is more unique and richly textured than ever, and that and her crack production team are all the personality [a]Rihanna needs right now[/a]. Actions after all, are louder than words.