Before we get to Rihanna’s mixed-bag new album Talk That Talk, I’d like to rhapsodize a bit. Rihanna is the finest female vocalist in pop music today. With every new song she convinces me more. She can’t hope to match the range, control, or precision of her many accomplished contemporaries, such as Beyoncé, Adele, Jennifer Hudson, and Kelly Clarkson. Yet her voice’s timbre, the tricky and subjective aspect of sound that causes us most to feel, is in a realm of its own. Where their voices resemble the round, deep tones of a clarinet, her instrument is double-reeded, sharing the piercing, brassy (and limited) qualities of an oboe. In other words, she is a Billie among Arethas.
Her voice’s distinctive color is the source of Rihanna’s massive success. Eminem and Kanye West incorporate it into their hits, the industry’s foremost producers and songwriters are eager to work with it, and millions of listeners can’t seem to get enough of it. Last year was her most successful. She was featured on 2010’s biggest single (Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie”), was a key element of one of its top tracks (West’s “All of the Lights”), and, oh yeah, she also had a smash album of her own (LOUD). However middling her non-singles can be, they are always highly listenable. Everything, good or bad, evaporates when Rihanna opens her mouth and sings a phrase. What’s left? Something akin to rapture.
Rihanna has assembled the usual army of top producers to work with her on Talk That Talk and for the most part they provide her with capable material. The Calvin Harris-penned “We Found Love,” a woeful but in the end optimistic thumper, is the clear standout. Its beats, which feverishly build and explode, are almost comically big, while its melody, sung above whooshing sounds and woozy synths, is ripped from early-90s dance pop. The similarly propulsive “Where Have You Been” and the “Rude Boy”-cribbing “Roc Me Out” are vintage Rihanna, both future hits no doubt. Alas, for every success there is a throwaway. “Cockiness (Love It)” and “Birthday Cake” continue her unsubtle and limp attempt to add edge to her music by way of explicit references to sex. “Farewell” and “We All Want Love” are the requisite ballads. Neither are as treacly as LOUD’s horrible “California King Bed,” but that’s faint praise indeed.
Talk That Talk is ultimately of a piece with Rihanna’s last couple releases and is just as flawed. But that’s OK. She is a micro, song-based pop artist, not a macro, album-centric artist like Lady Gaga or Robyn. Rihanna’s great statement and surest document of her talent is forthcoming: a sterling greatest hits collection. And Talk That Talk does its job admirably by providing more than a few tracks to that inevitable compilation.
Stream 'Talk That Talk' in its entirety here.