From the Dancehall to the Club
How could you not give a high-five (or, in this case, a “high-six”) to a young talent like Robyn Rihanna Fenty? After the 2005 charts witnessed the blaze of her hit song “Pon De Replay”, most of us came to know her as simply Rihanna (pronounced ree-ANNA), the youngster from Barbados who glides for the camera as if Tyra Banks gave her private lessons. On May 1, 2006, she stopped by MTV’s TRL during High School Week to learn a few moves from Brooklyn Technical High School’s step team. How could you dislike her? She pretty, she’s personable, and she’s already been compared to Beyonce, but with a Bajan twist and, of course, a business-only connection to Def Jam CEO Jay-Z.
Her second release, A Girl Like Me illustrates the hard knock life she’s been leading since she got signed by “H to the Izzo.” According to Def Jam’s press, she elected to move to the United States rather than stay in Barbados. She wakes up at five in the morning, goes through training and video shoots, and still gets her homework done. This translates to the album as a dichotomy in styles. Part of the album has a Caribbean influence, exemplified beautifully by “Kisses Don’t Lie”, “Dem Haters”, “Break It Off”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, and “Selfish Girl”. That’s the best part. The rest has little, if any, Caribbean influence. That’s the other part.
Now, I’m fully aware that I’m including “S.O.S.”, the album’s monster hit, with this “other” part. And, yeah, all things considered, “S.O.S.” is a decent song, brimming with energy and perfectly suited to Rihanna’s layered vocals. Even Nike has joined the Rihanna fan club, picking “S.O.S.” as the theme song for its women’s line, although it’s unclear how being weak in the knees over a boy will stimulate athletic prowess. It’s not exactly “We Will Rock You”.
Lyrically, “S.O.S.” is a classic tale of girl-sees-boy, girl-falls-head-over-heels, girl-dreams-of-boy-so-much-she-loses-herself, girl-sings-catchy-pop-song-about-boy, girl-sells-lots-of-records. True, it’s been done many times over—Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” comes to mind and, before Rihanna was born, Ms. Jackson-if-you’re-nasty nailed the same theme with “When I Think of You”. That’s not to bash Rihanna’s hit. Rather, the point is that if Rihanna can win the charts with “S.O.S.”, she’s going to have a bright future indeed.
“Kisses Don’t Lie” would definitely have “S.O.S.” screaming for help in a head-to-head competition. With its electric guitars and heavy reggae-style beat, the song is a winner. Rihanna is in her element when the music drives her closer to the island dancehall. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she’s also credited with co-writing this tune—she sounds inspired.
Same thing goes for “Dem Haters”, featuring Dwane Husbands. “Dem Haters” is a colorful duet about people who only want to “bring you down.” Again, Rihanna’s voice is a joy here, expressing a mixture of vulnerability and righteousness. Yeah, it’s a drag to have a hater in your circle, but you get the idea she’s gonna be okay. Rihanna just wanted to let you know, in case there was some hatin’ goin’ on in your camp. Now you’ll know what to do with ‘em.
Sean Paul joins the set for “Break It Off”, recorded in Jamaica. Paul, now the darling of reggae pop, has a knack for sharing beats with the right people. He dropped a nice guest spot on Beyonce’s “Baby Boy”, and opened up his own album, The Trinity, to similar collaborations, like “Connections” with Nina Sky and “All On Me” with Tami Chynn. When Paul works his magic, he threatens to steal all the shine, but Rihanna’s hook is so infectious that hers is the voice you ultimately remember. That’s another dancehall-flavored song and another winner. Note also the co-writing credits for Rihanna. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” continues the island vibe with its hypnotic beats and sweet lyrics.
That’s “sweet,” not “profound.” Although the lyrics on this album aren’t necessarily deep, they’re honest. When a girl wants to dance, a girl wants to dance (“Break It Off”). When a girl wants a boy all to herself (“Selfish Girl”), why hide it? Put these five songs together and, as Queen Latifah keeps saying in those Pizza Hut commercials, you can gather ‘round the good stuff. When the album takes us away from that nucleus of sound, it gets downright weird.
Take “Unfaithful”, a well-intentioned ballad informed by dramatic piano and strings. Rihanna takes on the title role of a girlfriend doing her boyfriend wrong by falling for somebody else. What’s more, her boyfriend knows it. Rihanna sings, “And I know that he knows I’m unfaithful / And it kills him inside / To know that I am happy with some other guy.” So far, so good, right? But then comes:
I can see him dying
I don’t want to do this anymore
I don’t want to be the reason why
Every time I walk out the door
I see him die a little more inside
I don’t want to hurt him anymore
I don’t want to take away his life
I don’t want to be…
I couldn’t tell if that seventh line ended with “life” or “light”—probably the connotations of “life” fit better within the context—but was that “I don’t want to be a murderer”? Whoa. Where the best tracks on A Girl Like Me are refreshingly unpretentious, the Ne-Yo penned “Unfaithful” goes overboard with melodrama. More than that, the lyrics are devoid of remorse. It’s basically, “I’m with somebody else and I know it’s killing you.” What about an apology? What about the fact that it’s just plain wrong? And, without context, we don’t really know if the “he” in this song is all that distraught, do we?
“Final Goodbye” takes us down that same strange road to the afterworld, this time in the tradition of Romeo and Juliet. Granted, the strings are marvelous, providing depth to Rihanna’s melody, but, good grief, the lyrics are morbid:
Before we turn off the lights
And close our eyes
I’ll tell you a secret
I’ve held all my life
It’s you that I live for
And for you, I’d die
So I lay here with you
‘Til the final goodbye
Yikes. It’s a gorgeous tune, but I was more than a little relieved when Rihanna and Sean Paul followed it with “Break It Up”. Still, “Final Goodbye” has more going for it than “Unfaithful” or the final ballad, “A Million Miles Away”.
It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t admit two things: First, those ballads aren’t bad songs. It’s just that Rihanna best demonstrates her immense talent when she plays to her strength with songs that favor her island roots. But, at the same time, the second admission is that there are exceptions to that general rule. The main one is “P.S. (I’m Still Not Over You)”, a letter to a former significant other set to a slow but plush groove. The other is “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want—Part 2”, featuring Corey Gunz.
In any event, Rihanna has plenty of time to work out any kinks in her game. Why sweat it? As for now, A Girl Like Me is a fine work by a singer with tremendous potential.
// Notes from the Road
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