In response to the Grammy Award nominations, I will be attempting to review a major nominated album each week on the site. Why? Because I've heard most of the songs/vocal performance nominees, but not the albums they came from. Whoops. Rihanna has very quietly taken over CHR/Top 40 airwaves. From her inauspicious debut "Pon de Replay"--just one of many island-tinged club songs released in 2005 when that was the new hot trend--to being nominated for Album of the Year, her six year rise to fame has been consistent for one reason. She has very strong singles. You know it's a Rihanna song before the first chorus is done because it will have the trademarks. There will be a very aggressive beat (even on a ballad). You will feel the urge to start moving in your car. And you will be able to sing along with some major element of the song before you realize what is happening.
Rihanna is the more accessible Lady Gaga and the more club-friendly Adele. All three ladies are leading the charge in pop music right now and going in completely different directions. On Loud, Rihanna pulls together an album that finally makes her stand apart as a genuine artist.
There is an emotional maturity and resonance that hasn't really been present on her recordings so far. Hints of this direction appeared on her single "Russian Roulette" from her album Rated R, but even that gets nowhere near the the poignancy and clarity of the more serious side of Loud.
Take the bridge from "Love the Way You Lie (Part II)" as an example. "So maybe I’m a masochist/I try to run but I don’t wanna ever leave/til the walls are goin’ up/in smoke with all our memories." This play between desire and heartache--pain and pleasure--is omnipresent on the album. The lead off single was called "S&M," after all. It is the driving force of the album. Can love overcome any form of abuse? Is it worth the pain it causes? And can your perception of pleasure change because you've been hurt?
It's hard not to connect the content of this album with Rihanna's personal life. An album all about pleasure/pain being released in the wake of being beat up, strangled, and left for dead by your ex-boyfriend cannot be a coincidence. The intentions are clear. All the intentions in the world do not matter if the music does not hold up.
Loud works even if you ignore the greater social message. Rihanna's dance style can be spliced into any party playlist and get the crowd going. The album is synth-heavy, but is not banking on the late 80's/early 90's retro vibe that has become legion in dance/pop recently. Loud doesn't look back; it pushes pop music forward.
Even in referencing older songs--Avril Lavigne's "I'm With You," Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie"--Rihanna's music goes beyond the current trends. You can hear elements of production trends--real world sound effects melded into drum/synth loops, layered chorus structure, filtered (not auto-tuned, more scratched up or distorted) vocal effects--but the songs don't rely on them. They stand as solid compositions and recordings.
The standout track to me is "Man Down." The reggae-hued midtempo revenge fantasy gets at the crux of Rihanna's mindset as packaged on Loud. Why did she pursue this course of action? Did it make her feel good? Did it make her feel bad? Does she regret it? Does she even realize what she's putting herself through? Or is she simply going on instinct, doing whatever feels right regardless of the consequences?
Loud is a must-have release for any dance/pop fans. It's Rihanna's greatest album because the thematic threads connect a wide range of styles into a cohesive unit. At the very least, it's a dance/pop album that will make you dance and sing along. If your goal is CHR/Top 40, this is the way you stay on top of the game.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.