Rihanna’s latest collection Loud is another sure fire assault on the charts and airwaves. It highlights exactly the best and worst of today’s pop aesthetic.
It is disposable to the point of grating. It is obsessed with sex. It struggles to convey sincerity in its songwriting. It’s peppered with moments of dance-floor brilliance. This isn’t an album to concentrate on or play on a house stereo; rather, it needs to be pumped out at a club. Or, if one isn’t to hand, out of a mobile phone on the top deck of a bus.
It washes over you on first listen, only striking in its hornyness. The production is certainly bo(o)mbastic but the content seems like an afterthought. This makes it a tricky sell, despite Rihanna’s superstardom. Opening with S&M, the huge synth bass blasts and cheap sounding drums are topped with the bridge of “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”. This is followed by the next chorus, in What’s My Name, of “everybody/knows how to work my body/knows how to make me want it/boy you stay upon it”. Definitely horny.
Similarly it displays the common big budget pop traits of being too focused on capturing strong American cultural conventions. Cheers (Drink to That) crowd-chants the bonhomie of friends drinking away the oppression of their work-life, and feels commissioned with the verses of “Cheers to the freakin’ weekend/oh let the Jameson’s sink in/don’t let the bastards get you down/turn it round with another round”, even while the loping rhythm addicts. Similarly California King Bed has the classic Dawson’s Creek acoustic guitar riffs, and documents a long distance relationship with all the ennui of pounding the open (coastal) road in an oversized car.
But if Loud is constrained like the massive-pop-release it is, it also basks in pop’s strengths. Indeed, in cycling through the idioms of American life, doused in sentiment, it does it well. California King Bed may be yuckish, but as a driving song it has you tapping the steering wheel. All-importantly, there’s the three club singles here, Only Girl (in the World), Raining Men and Complicated. Play these out of a sound system as big as the sun and Loud becomes a different beast altogether.
With the album backed by aggressive levels of volume, it leaves any concern for the head behind and starts masterfully working the primary senses with Gaga-inspired monosyllabic dance instructions. The na-na-nas of S&M become bullets fired at your feet and the “Oh na na”s of What’s My Name are now the stirring refrains that blast out of London’s West End. Rihanna’s sincere frustration in Complicated even manages to bring a blend of content and style, when she arguably doesn’t need to.
With their in-your-face rhythms, the dance tunes prove themselves as deft pieces of emotional engineering. Raining Men leaps out of the speakers, the drum patterns more fluid and a cheeky reference to the Weather Girls is thrown in for good measure. Similarly Complicated escalates with churning rhythms under an increasingly tense piano and Love The Way You Lie To Me allows Eminem‘s measured anger to give Rihanna a self-referential troubled relationship ballad a la Cry Me a River. Only Girl (in the World) is the very definition of a banger; it escalates, drops properly for the chorus and wallows in Stargate’s European hit style that screams “dance to this”.
For an artist with such a back catalogue of hits, it’s frustrating that the album format here seems only to be about marketing Rihanna the persona. But then that is the pop model. Gwen Stefani and Pink are masters of great singles but make terrible albums; in the pigeonhole marked “pop superstar lady” only Beyonc� maintains the standard of her album cuts. Ultimately Loud is a typical big budget pop album; nothing to sing about, but worth a dance.