Is Talk That Talk actually an album? It's certainly a CD with a booklet and some music.
Talk That Talk opens as if it had started somewhere else, "You Da One" fading into existence mid-performance and then catching us up on the particulars. Which is a bit of a clever move on the part of Rihanna's producers, considering we're seven years into her career and haven't had a moment to escape her voice since her tumultuous 2008, and even then somebody somewhere was queuing up "Umbrella" on your favorite bar's jukebox. These days Rihanna is spoon-fed into our ears as regularly as a morning cup of coffee, almost as if without her the pop culture side of our lives would be void. But that moment of coy awareness is fleeting, as Talk That Talk very quickly makes it clear this is easily the least Rihanna-reliant record yet. This is also a self-aware move, but self-defeating even more so. In its attempts to deliver us the sugar and frosting without much of the actual cake -- more on cake later -- Talk That Talk completely undermines itself as an album, sometimes even as songs.
Of the 11 songs contained in this forgivable slim 37-minute set, very few register as "songs" in the general sense of the term. These are tunes, three- and four-minute interludes designed for club DJs to dip in and out of at their convenience. Until Jay-Z appears at the beginning of the title track, you'd be forgiven for thinking you hadn't heard a single verse yet. Rihanna's long been critically derided for a sort of passionless delivery that doubles as the reason so many have fallen for her litany of hit singles, and it's always been best employed as a hook delivery device. In recent years, producers have capitalized on "Umbrella"'s ubiquity to make her voice repeat all kinds of sounds, from ellas to ays. She's become a paragon of hip-hop and dance-floor chants, and Talk That Talk can't emphasize that enough. Every time she comes to a verse, it takes a moment to register she might actually have something to say, as singles like "Cockiness" and "We Found Love" contains verses so slight they may as well be bridges.
Speaking of "Cockiness", a lot has been made about Talk That Talk's sexuality. I'm aware of why this is, even if the record doesn't sound nearly as dangerous as many of my peers would like you to believe. This is a girl who practically begged us to tie her up and spank her last year, after all, so hearing her sing-rap an ode to having her ... persuasion licked isn't exactly a surprise. Thanks to Rihanna's constant relevancy it's possibly easy to forget she's 23 years old and absolutely flush with cash, so a bit of sexual deviancy is probably the most predictable life path she could possibly follow at this moment. To me, the sex conversation going on here isn't worth much because it's delivered in a juvenile manner that's way more exciting to high school freshmen than college kids and adults. For example, "Roc Me Out" has Rihanna letting us in on a "dirty secret": "I just wanna be loved." Not exactly a dangerous sentiment, and I'm not so sure we ought to be so afraid of hearing women enjoy receiving oral sex, either. What I find much more notable -- as well as baffling and confusing -- is how much Talk That Talk feels like a demo reel for something that's yet to come.
If the opening tracks felt like interludes, then "Birthday Cake" feels like nothing at all. At one minute and eighteen seconds, we get an intro, a chorus and then what sounds like a verse that inexplicably fades out, almost like Rihanna was about to have her Nipplegate moment on record and her producers decided to cut her off. It's akin to downloading a highlights mixtape on Datpiff in which the DJ queues up their favorite parts of given records and quickly flips from one to the next without giving the satisfaction of hearing the full song. The affect of this high energy sequencing is a collection of songs with no real reference for each other and a hope on behalf of Def Jam that hooks will always be enough to draw us into Rihanna's web. But if Rated R was the implication Rihanna's nothing without some truly massive hits and Loud the certificate of proof, then Talk That Talk is the attempt to manufacture that reality out of recycled parts. To that end it's no surprise, then, that the full songs are the most disappointing, particularly "Drunk on Love" for capturing none of the nervous, pregnant energy that the sampled "Intro" by current indie muse du jour the XX was so full of.
Singles-wise, it's hard to tell how successful Talk That Talk will be. It's sure to sell on brand recognition alone, but I doubt a series of mannered and soulless hooks are going to find much life outside of the European remix circuit. Last year I poo-poo'd Loud a little too much, leaving me wondering exactly how to treat an album as professional and yet apparently unfinished as Talk That Talk. I like "Watch 'n' Learn", the title track is cool if only for Jay-Z's casual banter and I guess I'll give ladies the benefit of the doubt on "We All Want Love" and "We Found Love", but there's nothing to love here, which is new territory for Rihanna. We always knew she was much more commercial brand than a musical artist, but Talk That Talk portrays her as such an assembly line product there's almost no way to react to it emotionally. As a musical product, it feels completely at odds with itself, one of those awkward moments when an album seems like it would have no reason to exist if not for SoundScans, board executives and iTunes Top Ten bragging rights. Talk That Talk is a pleasant listen, a brisk one, fans should be satisfied. Could I recommend spending money on it? No. Do I think it will have any effect on her career -- positive or negative -- at all? You'll have to get back to me next fall, when she's sure to have an answer for us.