Music

Rihanna: A Girl Like Me

The Bajan Princess of the dancehall can "break it up" like nobody's business. And when you can drop it like it's on fire, there's no need to cool it off.


Rihanna

A Girl Like Me

Label: Def Jam
US Release Date: 2006-04-25
UK Release Date: 2006-04-24
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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…

a murderer

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.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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