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‘The most reliable hit machine in pop’ ... Rihanna.

From Listener’s Digest - The Guardian

By 2009, the idea of the “rebel album” – a record by a (typically female) pop star that aims for darker, more mature subject matter (see Janet Jackson’s Janet, or Christina Aguilera’s Stripped) – had become a bit passé. Rihanna, however, had more reason than most to want to refresh her creativity after a globally dissected violent assault by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown shifted her media narrative from pneumatic hitmaker to helpless victim. Rated R acts as the most glorious riposte to the latter notion, reasserting her control via rawer, more ragged music and imagery slathered in inky black molasses.
Rihanna referred to the album’s creation as “therapeutic” and the opening suite of songs immediately defines one of her survival instincts: bullet-proof defiance. UK producers Chase & Status concoct a menacing, dubstep-adjacent beat for the prowling Wait Your Turn, while the appropriately named Hard employs industrial-strength bravado (“brilliant, resilient, fan-mail from 27 million”) to paper over any cracks in her armour. As well as trying out different genres, from the aforementioned dabbles in dubstep to the excellent Fire Bomb’s 80s OTT rock balladry, Rated R also sees Rihanna sparring with more cliched masculine tropes. So the Slash-assisted Rockstar 101 finds her revelling in tortured genius territory, rolling lines like “sleep all day, long nights” around in her mouth with renewed relish, while G4L’s bass-heavy hip-hop peacocking features more natural charisma than an entire compilation of male rappers could muster.
Still, Rihanna’s personal life bleeds into the morbid atmospherics of mid-tempo lead single Russian Roulette, specifically during the excellent, emotionally charged middle eight: “As my life flashes before my eyes, I’m wondering will I ever see another sunrise,” she sings with a previously unheard emotional connection. It crops up again on the twisted revenge fantasy of the chugging Fire Bomb. This being a Rihanna album, there are flashes of pure, escapist pop – the lascivious Rude Boy, the Latin-tinged love story Te Amo – but the ultimate takeaway is of a pop star who had previously been defined by other people – be it her early mentor Jay-Z, or more catastrophically, Brown – making a statement above and beyond the narrative being written for her.

The three albums to check out next

Good Girl Gone Bad (2007)
2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad (and 2008’s equally hit-heavy Reloaded re-release) marked the point Rihanna morphed from radio-slaying popstar to fully blown pop culture-dominating megastar. Across both versions nine singles were released, from the globe-straddling, weather-altering Umbrella to the Ne-Yo co-penned ballad Take a Bow (both US and UK chart-toppers). Aside from the singles, including the Michael Jackson-sampling dancefloor behemoth Don’t Stop the Music, and the gothic-pop of Disturbia, the album constantly flexes its pop muscles, with album track highlights including the futuristic swirl of R&B stomper Breakin’ Dishes, and the stop-start funk of the Timbaland-produced Lemme Get That.
Talk That Talk (2011)
After the exhausted-sounding Unapologetic (2012), Rihanna took nearly four years to release its follow-up, Anti. The resulting album, featuring collaborations with the likes of SZA, Travis Scott and the Weeknd, jettisons EDM, big name dance producers, and Sia-assisted sky-scraping ballads in favour of hypnotic, soul-drenched interludes (James Joint, Higher), hip-hop workouts that wheeze as they slowly unfurl (Desperado, Woo) and, on the glorious Love on the Brain, a modern re-working of doo-wop that showcased not just the versatility of Rihanna’s voice, but her ability to infuse every second with pure emotion. The gloriously relaxed lead single Work also continued her streak for dictating the pop sound for the next three or four years.

One for the heads

American Oxygen (2015)
2015 was Rihanna’s year of experimentation, laying the groundwork for Anti’s arrival. Released after the folk hoedown of Four Five Seconds and the bowel-rupturing trap of Bitch Better Have My Money, the five minute mini-epic American Oxygen finds the Barbadian megastar musing, Bruce Springsteen-style, on the complex promises of the American dream. “Young girl hustlin’, on the other side of the ocean,” she sings over Alex Da Kid and Kanye West’s bass-heavy production, while what sounds like the swipes of helicopter blades whirr overhead.

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