Rihanna - Loud
Well I wouldn’t get in a car with her. “Who’s texting you, baby?” Biff! Ouch. Rihanna’s personal life, a flashbulb flurry of bloody noses, public accusations and wave after wave of legal counter-punching, needs no introduction. And just when she thinks it’s all over, the paps moving on to fresh meat, her southpaw ex pulls himself off the carpet and embarks on the ‘Fan Appreciation Tour’. I know. Chris Brown. An arse of some magnitude. To cap it all, turns out the fans didn’t want his appreciation and stayed at home. Now that’s gotta hurt.
Rihanna herself, of course, responded through her music; 2009’s Rated R a searing riposte to blokes who knock around women half their size and a howling, if not entirely focused, examination of post-Brown headline-making. It swapped its predecessor’s pop sensibilities for staccato beats and rasping arrangments. Good Girl Gone Bad, overflowing with hits, sold billions: ‘Umbrella’, ‘Disturbia’, ‘Don’t Stop the Music’, ‘Shut Up and Drive’. For a while, GGGB was a radio fixture; not so Rated R. The best intentions, no doubt, but lacking big tunes, hits were scarce.
Loud comes trumpeted thus: “I'm just gonna be me, because that's what you guys love the most, and that's what makes me feel best. Just being normal, normal for me is Loud!” Well, if that's what us guys love the most – how I hate it when she’s not herself! – that’s what we gotta get. Mmm. Don’t get your hopes up. Loud is just that but it stops some way short of being the pop thrill ride you’d like it to be. By and large its energies are undeniable but it’s a record that careers around the room like a kangaroo with ADHD. ‘S & M’, the first of three credits for the Norwegian songwriting conveyor belt Stargate, sets the brazen tone: “I may be bad but I’m perfectly good / There’s sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it / Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me.” Ooh, Mum must be so proud.
And on it goes. On the ballad ‘Skin’ she growls: “Got a secret that I wanna show you / I got a secret im’a drop em to the floor / No teasin, you waited long enough / Go deep … you know I like it rough.” Well, that’s just lovely. She’s not just a hussy, though. Take Cheers (Drink to That) which comes complete with a sample from, bafflingly, Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated’ and exhortation to: “Don’t let the bastards get you down / Turn it around with another round / Drinks on my mind and my mind on my money.”
It wouldn’t be quite such a sad state of affairs if she’d cobbled together these asinine sentiments herself but the album credits indicate that the songs on Loud require the creative efforts of four or five subcontractors. (You wonder how McCartney managed ‘Yesterday’ on his own.) Rihanna’s contribution? Zilch. There you have it. A young black woman, megastardom attained, coffers overflowing and what crumbs of insight does she cast our way? Ruminations on the racism that even fame can’t vanquish, the emptiness of success, her hopes and dreams for a new America, the deep agonies of love gone wrong? Nah. Content to let a collection of middle aged blokes put the words, and god knows what else, in her mouth, we get: 'I like shagging and I like the moolah.' Oh, the aspiration.
Don’t get me wrong. Rihanna, undeniably one of pop’s foxiest young things, has every right to be committing her bedroom diaries to the public record. In fact, as 21st century media consumers we demand that she does just that. Sex and politics are not necessarily oil and water. Fact or fiction, what a vicarious thrill! But this is so clumsy, so over-heated, the bland, literal, surly confessions carry with them a porn sheen that makes the listening experience awkward rather than arousing. No-one would claim it’s easy to transmit eroticism via a three minute pop song, and so very few have risen to the challenge. But to give up so easily in favour of dreary smut? Pfft. Remember the outrage – unthinkable two decades on – Madonna caused with ‘Justify My Love’ ? “I wanna kiss you in Paris, I wanna run naked in a rainstorm …” Compared to the sleazy sub-Pussycat Dolls titillation that Rihanna’s handlers peddle, our Madge was John Donne by comparison.
Boffing aside, even when she casts her sights back to her Caribbean roots with ‘Man Down’, it’s more Shaggy (sorry) than Marley. She slips into the patois of her native Barbados for this and for ‘Raining Men’, whose dancehall fizz is at least preferable to the limp balladeering of ‘Fading’ and ‘California King Bed’. The voice is drowned here; a shame. That weighty bray can be persuasive when it has a little room and half decent material and you wonder how much of her roots she has left. Beneath the overpowering weight of Autotune and the distractingly busy arrangements, it’s hard to tell but it’s undoubtedly too late to change tack now. Hear that? That’s the machine. Chomping, swallowing, belching.
The closing ‘Love the Way You Lie II’ puts Eminem aside in favour of Rihanna’s side of the story. It’s the best thing here by far, a riveting picture of domestic squall. But it comes far too late. Loud is unfashionably short for a big budget major release – 11 tracks instead of the usual two dozen – but that’s enough to make its less appealing aspects stick to the skin. With all those bodily fluids splashing about, it makes the prospect of jumping in the sack with a megastar pop queen seem like not so much a chore as a trial. It makes you think that all those years ago one of our very smartest pop stars had a point when he said he’d rather have a cup of tea. George, get the kettle on!