Sunday, December 04, 2011

Album Review: Rihanna - Talk That Talk (3.5/5)

Time flies, as they say, so it's hardly believable that Rihanna has now released six albums. What has releasing a sixth album meant for other major female pop stars? For Madonna, it meant turning away from her signature radio friendly pop to explore the steely, sexualized concept of Erotica. For Mariah Carey, it meant stepping further toward R&B and away from adult contemporary with Butterfly. For Janet Jackson, it meant a little of both, who incorporated more old school R&B while working her own fetishistic concept on The Velvet Rope.

In all cases (particularly for Madonna and Janet), those were pretty big risks, but if you're a pop star and you get to album #6, you're not going to be interesting much longer unless you take some. Hence, while shadings of those ideas are visible on Talk That Talk, the album unfortunately also plays it safe, rehashing a lot of what made her previous albums big successes but with less cohesive results.

Musically, Talk That Talk seems to have three main ideas: bubbly dance pop, slutty R&B and the uplifting ballad. Bubbly dance pop is an area where Rihanna excels, and she continues to do so here, especially with the global chart-conquering single "We Found Love" and the deeper dance floor groove of "Where Have You Been," both of which have renowned dance producer Calvin Harris' help.

R&B-leaning pop forms the core of the album, and here's where the results are markedly mixed. While the breezy, island-leaning fare like "You Da One" and "Watch n' Learn" work well (particularly the former, now a single, and clearly indebted to previous hit "What's My Name"), much of the rest does not. Particularly disappointing is the title track, which re-teams Rihanna with her "Umbrella" co-star Jay-Z, but fails in every way to match that single's appeal. In place of a catchy tune, we get Jay-Z making fun of pregnant wife Beyonce's increased need for the loo.

VH1 calls Talk That Talk the dirtiest album since Erotica, but frankly, it isn't nearly as clever, showing about as much finesse as a 12-year-old. Remember when Madonna coyly described cunnilingus on "Where Life Begins?" ("Colonel Saunders says it best: finger-licking good. Let's put what you've learned to the test. Can you make a fire without using wood?"). Rihanna takes a more straightforward approach on "Cockiness (Love It)": "I love it, I love it, I love it when you eat it." It's not a bad song actually--I like the spare beat--and even though its key refrain is clearly intended to send teenagers into titters ("Suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion"), I have to admit it made me smile too. The track that follows, "Birthday Cake," has a really cool minimal bass groove, and would have made a great song, except that after just a minute when Rihanna says "Ooh, I wanna fuck you right now." It was just a tease. Too bad.

"Roc Me Out" has that hard-edged electro sound that so many songs have these days, which frankly means it's a real snooze. Much, much more interesting is "Drunk on Love," which wisely samples "Intro" by XX, the group that made one of the best albums in recent years by realizing that a minimalist electronic approach was much more interesting that the layer-upon-layer approach most pop producers are doing now. It's a perfect sound for Rihanna, one I would love to hear her explore more.

The last element on Talk That Talk is its uplifting pop ballads, of which there are two, both not bad, but not knockouts. Cliche-ridden "We All Want Love" is the lesser of the two--a nice enough guitar-driven, mid-tempo melody, but it's just not that interesting, either musically or lyrically. Although it's also a cliche to end an album with a song called "Farewell," in this case, it's a good enough song that I'll let that slide. The chorus is particularly fine on this, achieving that delicious boost that eludes "We All Want Love."

Talk That Talk has some really great songs--in fact, as you'll see below I found five that I really like, which would generally accompany a four-star review. It's just that the album is so uneven, with some sparks of ideas that, if explored further, might have panned out to be something wonderful. This is the unfortunate consequence of Rihanna putting out an album every year--she doesn't take enough time to really hone it into something special. I say next year release a greatest hits album (there are certainly more than enough contenders to choose from) and spend the extra time to make album #7 something really, really remarkable.

Best: We Found Love, Where Have You Been, You Da One, Drunk on Love, Farewell

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