What hath Madonna wrought? Over 25 years after her iconic VMA performance of “Like a Virgin,” we’ve finally reached the climax of the oversexed pop starlet. You can’t swing a bottle of Jack without hitting a female recording artist whose primary goal is to get laid. Even Rihanna, the Barbadian pop dynamo, got in on the act. On her last two albums, Good Girl Gone Bad and Rated R, she transformed from girl next door into an expletive-dropping nympho vixen. The often tuneful Rated R, with its guitar-laden mid-tempo jams, tried too hard to add menace and edge to Rihanna’s sound and persona. It was right there on its cover, Rihanna made up like the fifth member of the Misfits from the Jem cartoon, hand over eye and pissed off beyond belief.
What a difference a year makes. Yeah, Rihanna is still exploding f-bombs and purring about wanting to see you just in your skin, but she’s also relaxed a bit. LOUD, her competent fifth LP, is a halfway return to form. Take the album’s opening track “S&M,” an overt rebound back to the forward thrust of singles like “Don’t Stop the Music” and “SOS.” Even with its silly, shopworn lyrics (“I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it”), “S&M” is a fizzy joy. (A note to pop hitmakers: sadomasochism may have been titillating when Lou Reed sang about shiny boots of leather back in 1967, but today it’s about as tame as a stolen kiss.) In fact, “S&M” represents LOUD’s central flaw: moments of greatness are marred by egregious errors, and these songs vacillate between the two depending on your mood and generosity.
LOUD is best when Rihanna takes pop to less-travelled realms, particularly when her island influences show. “Man Down,” a reggae-infused mea culpa, is the album’s highlight. Rihanna pulls out a gun and shoots a man down with a wonderful “rum pap pap pum,” killing us softly with an effortless roll of the tongue. It’s a rare instance of enunciation elevated to art. “Cheers (Drink To That),” a celebration of imbibing complete with a (surprisingly killer) Avril Lavigne sample, wins this year’s award for Song Least Likely to Be Heard at an A.A. Mixer. The sequel to Eminem’s megahit “Love the Way You Lie” focuses on Rihanna’s portion and is all the better for it, giving up the goods straight-up and unadulterated.
If only the rest of LOUD were so assured. “What’s My Name” features a terrific hook in its verse, but is hindered by the inclusion of sad-sack rapper Drake (“the square root of 69 is eight something”). The generic Top 40 R&B tracks “Skin” and “Fading” are adequate filler, but filler nonetheless. “California King Bed” manages to best Liz Phair’s “My Favorite Underwear” with a central metaphor so bizarre that you almost forget its overblown melodic schmaltz. Almost.
It’s only been three years since Rihanna released the incredible pop anthem “Umbrella,” but the artistic distance between then and now seems vast. Though nothing on LOUD approaches that particular triumph, Rihanna still delivers some modest highs. To quote one of the album’s better tracks: I’ll drink to that.