After finding personal vindication in 2009's Rated R, Rihanna returns almost exactly a year later with Loud, which further taps into Rihanna's post-Brown themes: sexuality and female empowerment.
While geeks like me like to sit around debating the merits of Rihanna's sustainability this far into her career -- being that she can't sing -- the moment "What's My Name" peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, two things were certified for me. First: Drake is definitely a go-to songwriter right now, no matter your thoughts on his music individually. And second: Rihanna's presence is something to take into consideration. Sure, paragraphs have been expelled in the past detailing her weaknesses as a real R&B -- even pop -- vocalist, but relatively little has been said about the character she exudes. Take "What's My Name", "S&M" or "Skin". There are few artists currently that can match Rihanna in terms of attitude and presence when it comes to these incredibly sexual, teenage-driven tracks.
But therein lies the catch-22. Because there are artists that can measure up to her level of sexuality. They come in the form of artists past -- Madonna -- and present -- Lady Gaga -- and they come armed with songs that rival the best of Rihanna's best. So what exactly about Rihanna is it that endears herself to people? As best I can tell, Rihanna is this generation's Britney Spears. She exudes the unique, biracial sexuality of the current generation while singing in a way that feels empowering to certain segments of the female population, and flirtatious to the same type of male consumers. It's a presence that allows her to get away with the chorus of "Sticks and stones may break my bones/But whips and chains excite me" that opens the album, while still building the empathy needed to put out a ballad like "Only Girl (In the World)".
Another thing that works in Rihanna's favor is, of course, the quality of songs she's provided with and her subtly characteristic twists on them. Songs like "Cheers" and "Man Down" aren't particularly weighty tracks for anyone who's graduated from the playground, and "What's My Name?" in particular is basically an empty song whose sole purpose is to craft sex on a dance floor (see also: "Skin"). But the way these excessively simple songs weasel their ways into your subconscious, waiting to be unleashed at random on trips through the subway, rush hour traffic jams and slow minutes at work is something to behold. "Cheers" speaks to the strange post-racial climate of hip-hop radio, sporting a thick, plain hard rock guitar riff and a sample of Avril Lavigne's pseudo-yodeling on "I'm With You" of all things. The song has a chance to be one of the most easily relatable on the disc, as Rihanna sits (hella) cooly in a bar, bespectacled and sipping Jameson while scanning the crowd for a man to take home for the night, but its third act is marred by a shockingly unnecessary barroom chant reminiscent of, say, Flogging Molly. It rings too hollow.
Granted, so does most of Rihanna's music. While she may be a great puppet, ultimately, she is simply that. There are no grand statements of femininity here, no songs that rise above the basic tropes of sexual desire and a rich woman's night on the town. The production is excessively typical of what's current with radio right now, which has always been an issue with Rihanna. For a woman with so many chart-topping hits, it's odd how she's not once seemed to be ahead of the curve. The worst evidence of this, "Love the Way You Lie Pt. II", is thankfully saved for the end. Alex da Kid provides the same main beat from before plus a garish new drum track that makes the song unlistenable to these ears, while Rihanna and Eminem do an uninteresting dance around whether to get back together or not after the revelations of Part I. The song feels like a flaccid cash in on the success of their previous collaboration, and for Eminem fans, it feels like yet another confusing career move from the guy who once played the reluctant radio tyrant. It is obvious now that he craves that position, for better or worse, which is kind of disappointing.
The rest of the album is full of synth stabs straight out of mid-90s house and four-on-the-floor, Amen Break-fueled pop. Rihanna makes the set hers, but there's really not much to it once you've heard the first five songs. "Man Down" is a murder ballad with a confusing reference to "Little Drummer Boy" and rambling, baseless lyrics that reach for Rihanna's islander roots without enough of a goal in mind to get there. "Raining Men" features Nicki Minaj, who does her best to inject some pep into the album, but ultimately, it's not enough to keep the second half from sagging under the weight of the first. At a brief 47 minutes, though, it's hard to see Rihanna fans walking away from Loud thinking she's anything other than the coolest girl in her field. The weaker songs will just be forgotten about in a few weeks anyway, skimmed over by taste-making iTunes downloaders who only vaguely recall a time when you either bought the whole album or none of it.