What’s in a font? In terms of music, they can conjure up several different meanings, from something stalwart (The Rolling Stones, Ramones) to the ephemeral and futuristic (Daft Punk), and finally to the fussy and over focus-grouped (Cher Lloyd). On Rihanna’s sixth album, she’s returning to the spiky ‘R’ that crowned the cover of 2009’s ‘Rated R’. That album was a Year Zero for her as she emerged from the pupa of robo-pop star to free-flapping ‘artiste’. It was the place in which personal crisis (her abuse at the hands of, and public break-up with, Chris Brown) drove her sound and image in the best, most creative ways possible. The futuristic, dubstep-shaded sounds on that album were mirrored by lyrics that layered meaning and allusions to create a cohesive piece of musical pop-art that pricked at your consciousness from several directions.
And then there was ‘Rude Boy’. The biggest hit from an under-selling album, its fun bump’n’grind jerk-pop seemed to dictate where she would go next. So it was – last year’s ‘Loud’ marked a turning point and the lasciviousness was upped up a notch, but at the same time you felt the shutters coming down artistically. It also coincided with her ubiquity. Suddenly she was everywhere, like the cast of The Only Way Is Essex-and-Kim Kardashian ‘everywhere’. There she was, popping up on David Guetta’s album, getting Ofcom and Matt Cardle into a tizzy on The X Factor, trilling the chorus of ‘All Of The Lights’ on Kanye West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, organising Katy Perry’s Cirque du Soleil hen do, appearing on ‘Pink Friday’, having a ‘get orf my laaaahnd’ moment with an Irish farmer. She was even, in London, spotted on the bloody tube on the way to one of her own concerts at The O2.
So perhaps it’s no big revelation that ‘Talk That Talk’’s stylish ‘R’ doesn’t indicate a return to ‘Rated R’’s boundary-pushing, but instead leaves us with the impression Rihanna has spread herself so thinly that she doesn’t have time to record a cohesive album. Her usually perfect hit-rate of sonic surprises is disappointingly low due, one suspects, to half the album having been monopolised by chart-botherers Dr Luke and Stargate. ‘TTT’ is filled with tinny-sounding ’90s Europop, the kind of stuff that hangs around the playlists of commercial radio for months. And when it’s not playing it safe, the album re-treads old ground. ‘Roc Me Out’ is a ‘Rude Boy’ re-tool from the vocal delivery to her “Come on boy…” line, closer ‘Farewell’ echoes ‘Fire Bomb’, while re-teaming with Jay-Z on the title track is a gamble that doesn’t pay off. The pace may echo ‘Umbrella’, but there’s precious little of that song’s spark. The Jigga’s rap feels like it was dashed off in a few minutes between Def Jam conference calls (“Oh, she really gotta pee”, he raps at one point. I mean, do we really want to hear about Beyoncé’s bladder control during pregnancy? Noooo).
Sure, there are pleasant moments – ‘Drunk On Love’ is basically The xx’s ‘Intro’ with Rihanna’s voice over the top, and ‘Where Have You Been’ is a dance-pop gem complete with ‘Bonkers’-style wibbles. But there are only two truly brilliant songs. Despite some cringey lyrics (“Suck my cockiness/Lick my persuasion”), ‘Cockiness (Love It)’ is genuine elastic thrill, twisting into all sorts of jaw-dropping musical shapes. Produced by Bangladesh, it sounds like a sped-up nervous breakdown, while the elliptical ‘Red Lipstick’, a collaboration with Chase & Status, sounds like something which could have graced the Katy B album. That the latter is relegated to the deluxe edition smacks of someone’s loss of nerve. You can only imagine what happened to the rumoured Rusko collaboration.
It would have been unpredictable and intense if Rihanna had followed these musical leads, but as it stands we get a so-so album which suggests it may be time for Ms Fenty to take a holiday.