The most immediate problem with the new Rihanna album is that it features three of the best songs in her entire catalogue that pertain to love: [Diamonds], [Stay], and [Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary]. Beside these three tracks, which flame against such gems as [Fool in Love] (a bonus track) from Talk That Talk and [Firebomb] from Rated R, her seventh album in as many years encircles them as a tired rehash of what she has done since Rated R. Unfortunately for people of my ilk, though, I am not entirely tired of the typeface. Not to say that there are not some good songs on this disc or that this album has nothing to say.
There is the first track on the album, dance-floor-ready from Guetta and The-Dream: in the words of [Phresh Out the Runway] “Cake killer”. [Diamonds] I’ve reviewed previously. In the context of the album, its place serves to stop the party, like an awful memory after the first shot that merits the second, third, fourth, and the bump. In your twenties, you hardly ever party without a hole to fill. After that hole has been thoroughly silenced we get [Numb] which runs in the same back-arching vein as [Skin] from Loud with a decidedly raunchier kick. Jazzy sax ostinato; sex rhythms; chopped-and-skewed, Champagne lyric-ed, artificially-lowered backer; and a guest appearance by Eminem make [Numb] one of her most aggressive, realistic songs about her hyped sexual prowess. The next song, [Pour It Up], is filler of the highest grade; wrapping up, as if in conclusion, the two club bangers like that section is over…
One of the oddest songs follows. [Loveeeeeee Song], sounds like T-Pain’s studio reject. Without the weird guttural stops, the track is at least interesting and Rihanna’s parts are listenable, but overall a mediocre track at best, a waste of album space at the worst. [Jump] I found to be forgettable as well, it has some great production quality, but Rihanna doesn’t quite deliver these lyrics, in all their unbelievably ‘90s corn, with any real aplomb. She sounds even more bored than usual. The unimaginative cut-and-paste dubstep breaks sound dated. For [Right Now], David Guetta, I believe, creates another damnable track. This indistinguishable from anything he’s done for Nicki Minaj or anybody else in the last two years. The Ester Dean-penned ‘80s diva melody and “die tomorrow” lyrics are old hat for Rihanna but would have been better served with newer production blood.
Last I checked Taylor Swift had the monopoly on wispy, girlish vocals and directionless love and life odes. Namie Amuro didn’t know how to be a girl or cry. Rihanna being vulnerable is absolutely nothing new. All these critics saying how much they love this “new” vulnerability apparently haven’t been paying attention or don’t remember her catalogue. The best parts of [What Now] are, ironically, the acoustic and electric guitar moments not that crazy EDM. But something about this song made me angry. She is 24. She’s an adult. Why doesn’t she know what she’s doing? Doesn’t she know what she’s doing? And then I realized I wasn’t angry at her lack of discretion in, what I concluded, was a adolescent song choice. As it happens, I’m 24 and she is only five months older than me. And in a moment of actualization, I realized I am also wondering what’s next. I’m two years out of college, getting over a major illness which dashed my plans. I’m lovelorn and repeating patterns. In the words of the song, “What now? I just can’t just figure it out!” So, I guess, it probably might be one of her best songs because it elicited anger from a place I didn’t know existed. For all of Rihanna’s shortcomings and bullshit, she happens to occasionally be extraordinarily artistic, human, movable, and good at her job: to hold a mirror to her generation.
And after one homerun, she hits another one. Just by sheer songwriting alone, she gives you [Stay]. It’s a duet with Mikky Ekko. When she sang it live on SNL, she blew me away. I do hope, against all hope, that it was indeed live. If it was, it was the best live performance of her career. The song is a piano ballad about, what else, love. It does have subtle touches of electronic embellishment but otherwise is mostly acoustic. It feels like a classic song, one, with any luck, we may be listening too when [Umbrella] feels too idiotic for words.
[Nobody’s Business] features the fuck out of Chris Brown. I’d almost leave it at that, but at least the track is worth listening to for the Michael Jackson sample of [The Way You Make Me Feel] and the speak-sing and a sparkling chorus. [Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary] recalls the ‘80s majesty of Heart’s [Alone]. It sparkles with a simple repeated melody and beat. Her delivery, both urgent and fated, controls the song. It’s a masterful piece of rock, that changes mid-stride into a prayer: a requiem for a star-crossed girl “from the left side of an island”. The buzzy electronics accompany the quickened beat, sounding more modern right up until the last seconds as it fades out: easily, one of the best songs on the album, if not her discography.
A full string quartet accompanies a fully realized, harmonically glorious ode to marijuana, the roll, and the pains she takes. [Get It Over With] is gorgeous. The islander track follows, [No Love Allowed], tricky bassline. It’s reminiscent of [Man Down] only in its island-feel, unfortunately it’s nowhere near as interesting. [Lost in Paradise] is an electronic, bass heavy, semi-fun number produced by Stargate which fails to be, as she is known for, an awful ending. This one, at least, leaves us in paradise, albeit lost, but dancing.
Again, Rihanna gives us something to blast out of car stereos, out of club speakers two feet taller than ourselves, out of earbuds on the Greyhound going home from college on Thanksgiving, and to give our grandparents small but effective heart attacks. I appreciate the provacteur of [Numb], the easy drug use of [Get It Over With], the love songs, and the generation Rihanna, whether you agree or not, represents. 1988 brought you yours truly as well as Skrillex, Emma Stone, La Roux, Jessie J, Michael Cera, Rihanna, and Adele so far. And the Echo Boom is not done. These are our party years, our years to break our hearts, our years to figure it out, our years to find direction, the beautiful years. Rihanna represents many facets of these years, and this album explores a few, as each album has. I do hope, though, that she can explore a few different facets on her eighth album, which will no doubt drop next year.
Love: [Diamonds], [Stay], [Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary]
Party: [Numb feat. Eminem], [Phresh Out the Runway]