The midyear 2007 rankings in Female Rhythm & Pop: 1. Beyoncé, 2. Rihanna... Wait. What? Rihanna?!
Awww yeah, it's on now, y'all. With the release of Rihanna's Good Girl Gone Bad (GGGB), her third, the field of female R&B-spilling-into-pop (yes, "Rhythm & Pop"), has just gotten a little more interesting. Although her previous release, A Girl Like Me, increased the shine of Rihanna's rising star, it also revealed her weaknesses. A Girl Like Me proved most enjoyable when it drew from the rhythm and sound of Rihanna's native Barbados. While Alison Hinds of the band Square One is surely the Queen of Soca, Robyn Rihanna Fenty was the Bajan Princess who rocked the dancehall.
Well, it's a year later, and the Princess has taken her game a step further. Team Rihanna (Yay! Go Team!) devised a strategy to keep the homegirl in the limelight. Let's check it out:
1. Framework: What do we know about Rihanna? Well, she's young and bright and sounds adorable with Chaka Khan's I Feel For You-like studio effects. In fact, go back and listen to I Feel For You and note the structural similarities between Chaka-Chaka-Chaka-Chaka Chaka Khan's album and Rihanna's. Both accented key singles with rap solos, though it was of course a bigger deal when Chaka did it in 1984. Chaka had Grandmaster Melle Mel for "I Feel For You" while Rihanna has Jay-Z for "Umbrella". Not bad, not bad. I prefer Melle Mel but, hey, it's all good. Both albums rely on danceable singles dominated by computer wizardry, which sometimes renders the mood kind of hollow and over-processed -- I never really believed Chaka "felt" for the person in the title song but the production tricks turned the Prince-penned tune into an amazing sonic treat. Admittedly, Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire" and "Stronger Than Before" are the exceptions, and Team Rihanna doesn't seem to be contemplating a run at that type of material. Play to your strengths, I always say. Good choice.
2. Just Like Wendy's, We Make Singles: Anybody who's anybody knows how great it is to have a bangin' single to help promote an album. Ergo (you have to say "ergo" when you've just said something obvious), Team Rihanna gives us a sizable collection of the suckers for GGGB. Frankly, any track from this set could work as a single, even the ones I don't like that much.
On the lead single, "Umbrella", Rihanna starts singin' in the rain after an opening rhyme from Jay-Z, the current champ of cameos. One of the more intriguing songs you'll hear about an inanimate object, "Umbrella" finds Rihanna taking her sweet time, stretching her gritty croon to soothe her mate, "When the sun shines, we'll shine together / Told you I'll be here forever". Last year, she was in dire need of assistance, going so far as to send out an "S.O.S." -- "Someone come and rescue me", she said.
This year, she's a protector, a comforter, ready to provide shelter from the proverbial storms, but not with the attitude of Beyoncé's "Suga Mama". Nah, Team Rihanna knew better than to go down that road. Rather, it's a ladies-eye-view of Johnny Gill's "Fairweather Friend" (except Gill was a "bridge" over "troubled waters"); it's the sunnier side of Mary J. Blige's "Everyday It Rains"; and it's the lyrical prequel to Alicia Keys' "Diary", the stage in the relationship before the intimate secrets are exchanged.
"Umbrella" is a monster, so much so that I'll even confess to spending a portion of a rainy afternoon practicing the hook, "You can stand under my um-buh-rrel-LAH… el-LAH… el-LAH… eh… eh… eh." That's how she sings it -- um-buh-rrel-LAH -- and you gotta really pop that "b" to get it right.
Singer Chris Brown evidently liked the song so much, he has added his vocals to it, chiming in, "You can be my Cinderella", and he sings it at Rihanna's pace -- Cinnnn-der-rel-LAH. The song works rather well as a duet because, after all, isn't that what people do with umbrellas? They share! (Good idea, Chris. I tell ya, that young man is somethin' else.) A remix with raps from Lil' Mama instead of Jay-Z has also been floating around. Soon, there's going to be more versions of "Umbrella" than answer records to U.T.F.O.'s "Roxanne Roxanne".
Thanks to Team Rihanna's decision to enlist songwriters and producers like Christopher "Tricky" Stewart, Timbaland, J.R. Rotem, Ne-Yo, StarGate, and Terius Nash, the songs are clever, if not classic. Take, for instance, "Shut Up & Drive".
Every so often, a song comes along that makes a Prince fanatic like me say, "Prince didn't write that but it sure sounds like he did!" In 1994, it was TLC's "Waterfalls". This year, that song is "Shut Up & Drive", a swerving rock-infused ditty that upgrades Vanity 6's almost intolerable (at least to human ears) "Drive Me Wild" ("Ooh, look at me, I'm a Cadillac") and shifts "Little Red Corvette" into reverse: the car does the talking while the would-be driver keeps quiet. I suppose it's the word "qualified" that reminds me of Prince, as well as the cadence of the verses, as Rihanna opens with, "I've been lookin' for a driver who is qualified / So if you think that you're the one, step into my ride". She then proceeds to immerse herself in the role of the "fine-tuned supersonic speed machine" with "a sunroof top and a gangsta lean". The ending, where I presume the daring driver of the Rihanna-mobile loses control and crashes, absolutely cracks me up. Ha! You can't handle Rihanna! You gotsta tighten up yo' game, son!
"Shut Up & Drive" is Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love", but sassier. It's Michael Jackson's "Speed Demon", but without the Speed Racer motif. Keep thinking and you'll conjure up a bunch of like-minded car songs (which is a fun game to play on road trips). "Shut Up" would've fit comfortably on Gwen Stefani's first album, alongside tracks like "Crash", "What Are You Waiting For", and "Bubble Pop Electric". Hell, it's practically screaming to be the marquee song for a pickup truck commercial -- can I get my finder's fee for that one?
Most of all, it's catchy as hell. I caught myself in the grocery store humming part of the chorus, "My engine's ready to explode, 'splode, 'splode", right in the middle of the frozen food aisle. It turns out that people with questioning, confused looks on their faces don't respond well to "Hey, it's Rihanna," coupled with a timid shrug.
In addition to "Um-buh-rrel-LAH" and "Shut Up & Drive", GGGB is loaded with dance numbers. Last time, the ballads brought the party to a crawl. In the review for A Girl Like Me, I blamed the lyrics in songs like "Unfaithful" for the problem; others might blame the vocals. Take your pick.
But this is a new year and, accordingly, Team Rihanna seems determined to keep the party moving with "Push Up On Me", which is basically a Part Two of last album's "Break It Off", although I could have done without the sample of Lionel Riche's "Running With the Night". It's nothing against Lionel Richie. In fact, I love his song -- pulling off drive-bys to "Running" is one of the reasons I still play Grand Theft Auto: Vice City -- but I didn't love the song's gong sound running with this track.
The song that follows, the Michael Jackson-sampling "Don't Stop the Music", inspires the type of tail feather shaking you can only produce when you're chanting, "Ma ma say, ma ma sah, ma ma koo sah", from "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'". Hee hee! Take that, Ciara! If only they could've worked in the "You're a vegetable" line from "Wanna Be"! That would've been classic, almost as awesomely bizarre as Jill Scott's Tarzan impression (I don't know any other way to describe it!) at the finish of Who Is Jill Scott?'s "He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)".
But, did someone mention a "ballad"? I used to like ballads…
3. That's "Ballad", not "All Bad": Did you know "all bad" was an anagram of "ballad"? Well, forget that -- just know, this time around, that Rihanna's attempts at balladry aren't all bad. Actually, I'm not convinced they count as full-fledged "ballads", but you should at least check out "Hate That I Love You", a duet with other wunderkind Ne-Yo. It has a "So Sick" feel to it, but isn't it just a little bit catchy? And smooth? C'mon, admit it, you know Ne-Yo is a smooth dude. If I had a daughter, I'd definitely warn her about that Michael Jackson-dancin', tennis shoe wearin' kid, especially the way his voice seems to melt over a backdrop of luscious guitar strumming and sappy-go-lucky handclaps. "Don't fall for it," I'd tell my daughter, but you know how the story goes. She'd fall, and fall hard, like an egg on hot concrete.
The other non-party numbers don't match "Hate That I Love You", but they pass muster. There's Shea Taylor and Ne-Yo's whispery, existential production of "Questions Existing", as Rihanna sings, in the slow, angst-ridden whine she has in common with Nelly Furtado, "Who am I living for? Is this my limit? Can I endure some more?" There's also a contribution called "Rehab" from the two Tims, Justin Timberlake and Timbaland. You have to know, when "Rehab" begins with the violins and cellos, that J.T. is somewhere around -- it's like a remix of Timberlake's own "What Goes Around". Timber could've used it for himself, maybe as a b-side or a soundtrack item, but he let Rihanna have it, complete with his own background vocals, something like Babyface's collaboration with Madonna on "Take a Bow" and "Forbidden Love" from Bedtime Stories. That's awfully kind of you, J.T. Team Rihanna will go ahead and snatch that little gem, thank you very much. And, no, it's not tax deductible.
The weakest song? In my opinion, it's "Say It", where Rihanna pushes for interpersonal communication, but it's tough to take it seriously with its Kelis-style rap. I appreciate the Caribbean vibe of this song, even if it does seem a little canned, like a lounge act on a cruise ship (boy, does that sound like Simon Cowell or what?!). Also, you gotta love how "Say It" incorporates elements from Mad Cobra's "Flex", but I really do wish this song had been omitted from the tracklist. However, one complete dud out of twelve ain't bad. And even if the "dud" pops up when I set my playlist to "shuffle", I shouldn't have any trouble letting it play out … eventually.
The U.K. version of GGGB contains the bonus track "Cry", in which Rihanna exhibits "all the symptoms of a girl with a broken heart" but refuses to show her tears. It's a cute song, but if you're stuck with the U.S. release, don't sweat it: you're not really missing anything.
4. Image: The album title says it all, from "good girl" to "bad girl", suggesting material that's more raw, perhaps edgier and more risqué, along the lines of TLC's "Good at Being Bad". Well, chalk it up as another smart move from Rihanna's handlers because, when you get right down to it, the supposed transformation of Rihanna (like, perhaps, Mariah's The Emancipation of Mimi) must be a state of mind. She's not really any "badder" than she was on her previous releases. Not even the title track owns up to actually having "gone bad"; it's more of a warning against treating "girls" badly because "once a good girl goes bad … she's gone forever." If anything, the content has "gone bad" in that non-threatening Michael Jackson "I'm Bad, I'm Bad, sha-moan" sort of way. In the movie The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey's character fools the police for the entire film by pretending to be crippled and far too meek to be a ruthless criminal. At the end, he offers this jewel, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist". Apparently, Team Rihanna's trick is to insinuate that he does.
There is, however, more attitude on Good Girl Gone Bad, like in "Breakin' Dishes" when she talks all kinds of smack about a dude who might be cheatin', and says on the chorus, "I'm breakin' dishes up in heah / All night (uhn huh) / I ain't gon' stop until I see police and lights (unh huh)". But it's not Beyoncé's "Ring the Alarm" or Kelis' "Caught Out There" (see also: "I hate you so much right now! AAARRRGH!"). What it is -- what it all is -- is pure entertainment, a musical funhouse mirror that reflects today's breadth of girl talk: a little bit of Gwen, a dash of Kelis, some Beyoncé, a shade of Pink. Rihanna is a little girl messin' around in a grown woman's closet, playin' dress up in front of the bathroom mirror ("Look, Mama, I'm Kelis! I betcha I can do Gwen Stefani!"). This is cottony, radio-friendly ear candy, folks, and it's so fresh and so clean (clean!) it'll make you say, "Aww shucks! Isn't that sweet?"
The twist, though, is that she's gotten pretty damn good at it. It's just that I don't want the "Bajan Princess" to disappear. While there are flashes of her reggae and soca roots on this project in "Sell Me Candy" and "Lemme Get That", as well as in her voice, the influence is less apparent here than on A Girl Like Me. I'm cool with her expanding her range, and I also dig the diversity of sound on this record, but I want to remind Team Rihanna that her Bajan roots could be important in distinguishing her from the competition. The mainstreaming of Rihanna's talent, for the "urban" U.S. market especially, runs the risk of making her generic, even while it inches her closer to being Ashanti's successor to the "Hip Hop Princess" position. Is it merely coincidence that the one album with no writing credits for Rihanna is also the album with the least offshore influences? Hmmm….
It's going to be interesting, then, to see what's in store for Rihanna. Right now, she's not a vocal powerhouse of Chaka Khan's caliber -- not many singers are -- so the chances of her getting away with a remake of, say, "Through the Fire" would be miniscule. The layering of two or more Rihannas can sound better than a lone Rihanna, but she's still gonna have to eat her Wheaties, a hundred bowls of Total, and a steady supply of energy bars to go note-for-note with Beyoncé, the Queen Diva of Rhythm & Pop. Nobody, not even Team Rihanna, wants to bring that showdown to fruition anyway.
But then again, like I said last year, she's still young, not even 21 yet! I'm rooting for her longevity, the same way I'm rooting for the return of Res or stronger solo output from Gwen Stefani or the Beyoncé album that will blow us all away. Now that Rihanna has persuasively made the case that she's got staying power, the question existing is, as she says, whether she's reached her limit. My vote says she hasn't. But you know how it goes in the world of music. We'll have to stay tuned.