Rating: 2.4/5.0

Label: Def Jam

The Barbadian-born Rihanna occupies an interesting place in popular music. She’s pop enough to be a fixture on the radio and included on Now That’s What I Call Music compilations, but she’s also the go-to girl for hip-hop stars who need a vocal hook, whether it’s T.I., Eminem or Jay-Z. It’s a boon for both as it gives her a little more cred and sweetens their swaggering masculinity. Yet after five albums, her appeal remains elusive. She’s better defined when compared to other female artists: she doesn’t have the pipes or outsized personality of Beyonce, whom she often seems to emulate, she’s not as disposable and trashy as Ke$ha or Katy Perry, she’s not as bizarre as Lady Gaga and she’s not as rad as Robyn. She seems to want to be taken more seriously, cultivating a tougher, more aggressive image. On last year’s post-Chris Brown album, Rated R, she swore, sang about sex, posed in a series of mildly provocative pictures with barbwire, devil horns and a lot of exposed flesh and proclaimed, with some help from Jeezy, that she was “Hard.”

On her fifth LP, Loud, Rihanna enlists Drake, Nicki Minaj and Eminem, but despite their presence, the album feels more pop/dance than hip-hop, which is one of its problems. Rihanna doesn’t really know what she wants to be on Loud, something that having different producers for most of the album’s 11 songs certainly doesn’t help. It veers from ballads to would-be club hits to radio-friendly pop, all presented with the listless production and a too bright sheen that the Black Eyed Peas have perfected. She continues to flirt with being edgy on the kickoff track, “S&M,” which is spirited, if dumb, full of Gaga-esque keyboard, club-hop beats and lines like, “Sticks and stones may break my bones/ But chains and whips excite me.” I’ll just get this out of the way: Rihanna is very attractive and you’d think her singing about sex would be, well, sexy, but it’s curiously cool, even calculated. And that’s her chief defect as a singer; she always seems a bit aloof, almost robotic, and she rarely injects much emotion into the songs. Little personality or individuality comes through in her music, giving the album a rather soulless, manufactured quality.

Almost all the songs here feel half-hearted, lacking even dumb hooks and pop melodies. Drake helps out on “What’s My Name?” which benefits from spacious, restrained production, but in the end is a little monotonous. “Cheers” (Drink to That)” aspires to be a throw your hands (and drinks) in the air club banger, but it’s too slow and generic. The two best things about it are the throwaway “yeah yeah” backing vocals and a surprising shout-out to Jameson rather than Patron. “Fading” is a kiss-off ballad that samples Enya, but feels like an inferior version of Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable.” Once again, Rihanna doesn’t seem to inhabit the song, so much as glance at it. Then there’s the faux-reggae of “Man Down,” which cries out for a Diplo remix, and what may be the worst song, an inane, overblown ballad called “California King Bed” that wouldn’t be out of place on a Taylor Swift album. It’s not all bad songs and lame production thankfully. The highlight is “Raining Men,” which, alas, does not sample the Weather Girls song, but contains the best beats, catchiest bits and a great guest spot from the up and coming Nicki Minaj who totally steals the song. Loud closes with “Love the Way You Lie (Part II),” which is pretty similar to part I except this time it’s Rihanna featuring Eminem. Eminem’s brief, shrill verse is further proof of his slide into mediocrity.

Looking at the covers of her albums, it’s clear that Rihanna has no trouble reinventing her image (she’s a redhead now), but there’s little sense that she has the inclination or creativity to reinvent herself musically. “Umbrella” may have just been a fluke. Despite what she’s tried to convince us with her last few albums, that’s she’s a Good Girl Gone Bad, that she’s Rated R, that she’s Loud, she mostly just seems like an attractive, but not particularly adventurous or inspired pop star.

by Lukas Sherman

Key Tracks: Raining Men, What’s My Name?, Only Girl (In the World)

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