Rihanna's fifth album, Loud, is out next week. Here's a look back at the four albums that preceded it:
Music of the Sun (2005)
Rihanna's debut was a simply clever idea: fuse Caribbean sounds onto contemporary urban pop. In a way, the singer's debut made her rather faceless--she could be anybody singing these songs--although if you know her Barbadian background it makes a bit more sense. "Pon Da Replay" kicks the album off in style with a slamming dancehall beat that proved to be irresistible, making the song an international hit. After that, there's nothing nearly as good, although mellower second single, "If It's Lovin' that You Want" is decent enough, as is the title track, which has a laid back, sensual melody over a Caribbean beat. If "Pon Da Replay" hadn't become an international hit, this is the sound of what Rihanna would probably still be doing today. Best: Pon Da Replay (3/5).
A Girl Like Me (2006)
Having hit on a winning formula, producers Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken worked with Rihanna on this follow-up, which came out just 8 months after Music of the Sun. The album employs a similar formula, although with more variety, which is both its blessing and its curse. While the harder-hitting dance pop song, "SOS," is her best recording to date, she was also pushed to record quite a few ballads on this album, which, given her limited vocal abilities, were not her strong suit. Dramatic "Unfaithful" works fine, but other attempts like "Final Goodbye" and the piano ballad "A Million Miles Away" do not. Still, the album is overall a bit better than its predecessor. Tracks like "Kisses Don't Lie" employ a similar Caribbean vibe, but sound more confident. Best: SOS, Unfaithful (3.5/5).
Good Girl Gone Bad/Good Girl Gone Bad Reloaded (2007/2008)
If "Pon Da Replay" made Rihanna a star and "SOS" proved it wasn't a fluke, then Good Girl Gone Bad is when she became a superstar. While those albums did well, they pale in comparison to this pop masterpiece, one of the most successful pop outings of the decade. Rogers and Sturken, the producers who had guided most of the songs from her first two albums, took a back seat here to bigger name producers like Timbaland, StarGate, JR Rotem and Christopher Stewart. The party gets started with "Umbrella," an even bigger hit than her previous ones, which spent 7 weeks at #1 in the US and 10 weeks atop the UK singles chart, and then proceeds into heady dance pop territory with the next four songs, all of which work great, especially the Michael Jackson-sampling "Don't Stop the Music." "Hate that I Love You," a winning mid-tempo duet with Ne-Yo finishes the album's fantastic first half. While the second half of the album isn't as consistently good, it still delivers some gems, like "Rehab," which is the album's darkest song, as well as the title track, a characteristic StarGate production. There's barely any Caribbean influence on this album, which favors dance pop and urban pop much more so than her previous works. In 2008, a special edition added three new songs, all great, including "Take a Bow," a ballad that showcased her improved vocal abilities, and "Disturbia," a grinding dance pop track. Best: Umbrella, Don't Stop the Music, Hate that I Love You, Push Up on It, Disturbia, Take a Bow (4.5/5).
Rated R (2009)
Something awful happened to Rihanna early in 2009. I think everyone knows what it is, so I don't need to go into details. For better or worse, the experience emboldened Rihanna to make the most interesting album of her career. Rated R is still a work of polished urban pop, but it is far darker and riskier than her previous work. Gone is the sunny dance pop of Good Girl Gone Bad, replaced with a sound at varying times angry, wounded and defiant. Gritty urban numbers like "Wait Your Turn" and "Hard" vie for attention with vulnerable outings like "Stupid in Love" and "Cold Case Love." At its best, the songs are just potent, such as suicide-pondering "Russian Roulette," which is still hard to listen to, and "Fire Bomb," which I still feel was shamefully passed over as a potential single. Only "Rude Boy," the album's major hit, and sweet "Te Amo," provide some relief from the album's dark sound. Rihanna's always had a dark side (after all, in "Unfaithful," she's the one who cheated), but on Rated R, she really let's it all out there. Fantastically artistic and unforgettable. Best: Russian Roulette, Rude Boy, Fire Bomb, Photographs, Stupid in Love, Te Amo (4.5/5).