Barbados-born Robyn Rihanna Fenty has been through a remarkable amount in her 22 years, and somehow, in a six-year musical career, is already releasing her fifth album. Her last, 2009's Rated R, was a gothic wonderland, a delicately painted portrait of a fractured but defiant head-state, after Rihanna's very public relationship with the singer Chris Brown ended with him being found guilty of assault. Despite being emotionally graphic, it was executed with subtlety, finding a careful balance between intimacy and over-exposure.
As befits an album called Loud, this quick follow-up finds Rihanna ostensibly turning her back on introspection, and turning up the volume. The pop zeitgeist looms large from the first minute: S + M's thudding drums and stadium-ready electro synths, coupled with "na na na na - come on!" injunctions, imply Rihanna's songwriting team have sought to cook up hits straight from the Lady Gaga recipe. If that's the intention (and it almost certainly is), then it's not a bad effort, but it feels like a slightly pointless one - especially a few tracks later when the pounding trance beat and David Guetta keyboard head-rush of Only Girl (in the World)'s repeats the mistake, drowning out Rihanna's vocal. The problem is Rihanna is just too interesting to be just a mediocre club-pop clone, in the vein of Katy Perry or Ke$ha.
But it's a good problem to have, and it doesn't take long for her complexities to show through the pop sheen. On Cheers (Drink to That), she sings herself self-help messages in fridge-magnet snippets: "Life's too short to be sitting round miserable / People gonna talk whether you're doing bad or good", while a slothful drum-beat pitter-patters woozily like it's had one many too drinks itself. It's supposed to be a defiant, good-time anthem, a silencing of her demons with liquor, but when she wails to raise your glasses, it's utterly - and tellingly - unconvincing.
The epic story-telling of the uber-hit Love the Way You Lie also suggest Rihanna's emotional scars aren't healed yet: beautiful lines such as "there's gravel in our voices" ascend to a climactic, visceral chorus: "you're just going to stand there and watch me burn / That's alright because I like the way it hurts". It's a paean to relationships so intense they become destructive, and even for a nominally fictional collaboration with Eminem (a battle-weary heavyweight when it comes to playing characters in song), it's painfully close to describing Rihanna's real-life past.
When her personality is allowed to show through, Loud hits as many peaks as Rated R. Employing her Barbadian accent on Man Down, over an irresistible pop-reggae beat, Rihanna tells a story that invokes I Shot the Sheriff; her witty vocal delivery is suddenly oceans apart from the Gaga-bot zeitgeist-pop tracks. "Barrrru-pa-pa-pum" she trills, "I just shot a man down in Central Station / In front of a big old crowd / Why did I pull di trigger? / Pull di trigger, pull di trigger / BOOM". It is followed by the equally attention-grabbing Raining Men, which is not, thankfully, a reworking of the karaoke favourite, but a sassy anthem of female empowerment, featuring woman-of-the-moment Nicki Minaj's blitzkrieg rapping. Again, when Rihanna is allowed to show her sass, it's immeasurably more satisfying.
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