Album Review

Rihanna: LOUD (Album Review)

On June 5, Rihanna‘s name graced headlines after she appeared onstage at the Rock in Rio concert in Madrid donning a fiery red, ultra-cropped new ‘do.

And although she was still in the midst of promoting her last album on The Last Girl on Earth Tour, it was clear that–with a small shock of red that would soon evolve into a bright, feathery mane–the LOUD era was born.

But it wasn’t just the hair that changed.

Only one year ago, Rihanna was in the midst of releasing her fourth studio album, Rated R, a reflection on the darker period of Rihanna’s life which has since come to be known simply as ‘the Chris Brown incident.’

The album was a distinct break in image and sound for the young artist, complimented by stark visuals and a hard new sound: Promotional photos featured Rihanna wrapped in barbed wire and throwing gun signs, clad in spikes, chains or nothing much at all, while the music of the album was filled with grinding dub-step beats and cold, damning lyrics.

While Rated R proved less commercially viable than her 2007 multi-platinum Good Girl Gone Bad (which ‘artistic’ album ever gets its fair recognition?), Rated R stands as a career-defining record, one that completed Rihanna’s transition from a dime-a-dozen radio star to a full-fledged artist with depth and complexity.

Nonetheless, it was clear that Rated R was a temporary (albeit necessary) moment of darkness in the otherwise sunny Bajan songstress’ disposition. With the release of the bratty, bossy “Rude Boy” in February, the Barbadian sensation was already exuding the same playful, cocky confidence and breezy spirit that has come to define her since her debut single, “Pon De Replay.”

Therefore, it was no surprise when the world received the first taste of Rihanna’s new music on September 7: “Only Girl (In The World),” the catchy, surging lead single from LOUD. Like a 2010 update to her 2007 smash “Don’t Stop The Music,” “Only Girl” quickly restored Rihanna’s reign as a radio chart topper with a dance-pop, synthesized beat and an anthemic, rallying call of a chorus: “Want you to make me feel like I’m the only girl in the world!”

And then came the promotional photos: Soft, dream-like portraits of a redheaded RiRi frolicking in open fields. The sharp shoulder pads, slicked back hair and dark sunglasses of 2009 gave way to frilly dresses, bright red lipstick and gorgeous close-ups bathed in natural light. As soon as it had begun, Rated R and its jagged metal logo were buried in a field of pretty flowers.

And so we have LOUD: From surging trance-pop stormers to heartbreak ballads, swaying Island-inspired rhythms to moody, downtempo beats, Rihanna‘s latest effort is her most eclectic and colorful mix yet.

“S&M,” the album’s leading track, could very well be considered a sequel to “Only Girl”–musically speaking, at least. Complimented by a loud, stomping chorus (“Na na na, come on!”) and an in-your-face, pounding beat, Rihanna merrily glides her way through the most popular fetish in pop. “Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it,” she taunts while putting on her best Dita face. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me!”

“Erotica” it is not, but as a whole “S&M” provides for one of the most fun uptempo tracks Rihanna’s provided since the days of “Disturbia.”

Whips and chains aside, the bulk of LOUD finds Rihanna returning to her roots in a series of mid-tempo grooves.

Perhaps nowhere is RiRi’s essence more strongly represented than with “Man Down,” the reggae-infused confessional co-penned along with fellow Barbadian chanteuse, Shontelle. Working on top of a breezy, rasta groove, Rihanna slowly recounts the deadly details of the man she shot down dead. As the song’s murderous plot develops, so too does Rihanna’s delicious Bajan accent, unleashing full-on once the bridge rolls around: “Why deed I pull dee treeguh, pull dee treeguh, pull dee treeguh, BOOM!”

Elsewhere on the record, the singer lets herself further unwind: “Cheers (Drink To That),” which jarringly samples the yelping core of Avril Lavigne‘s “I’m With You,” finds the Bajan princess putting her middle finger up for a round of booze in this hazy, R&B mid-tempo. “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” she sagely offers above the song’s slow-churning beat, “Turn it around with another round.”

Filled to the brim with silly, carefree lyrics (“It’s getting Coyote Ugly up in here, no Tyra”) and drunken singalongs with friends, “Cheers” is a reminder that Rihanna is clearly not taking herself too seriously on this album. And you know what? That’s pretty damn refreshing to hear. (Pun overload?)

The fun reaches its peak with “Raining Men (feat. Nicki Minaj),” arguably the most anticipated tracks from the new record. As the two leading ladies of pop and hip-hop bounce back and forth on top of a spastic, siren-filled gritty beat (including a sample of children’s song “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe”), the two take pleasure in cutting their suitors down to size: “And he sweatin’ me just cause I got the tightest hole,” Minaj shrieks, “But I couldn’t find that th-thing wit a microscope.” Burn!

For the record, the song also happens to feature the album’s greatest lyric as sung by–shocker!–Miss Minaj: “Laid out on the beach, they be feedin’ me my catfishes / ‘Cause it’s raining men…fat bitches.” Perfection.

Back when the album title was first announced, there was a certain assumption amongst fans that the album would be full of club tracks. In reality, LOUD has more than a fair share of emotion-wrought ballads, including “Fading” and “Love The Way You Lie (Part II),” her stunningly gorgeous, piano-led response to the incredibly successful summer collaboration with Eminem.

The biggest and most impressive of the slower numbers, however, is “California King Bed,” an agonizing belter that might be one of Rihanna’s best vocal performances yet. Though she’s never been known for being a skilled vocalist, the singer absolutely nails it with this cut: “In this California king bed, we’re 10,000 miles apart” she cries out in her biggest break-up ballad since Rated R‘s “Russian Roulette” and the deeply underrated album track, “Fire Bomb.”

And while Rated R may be a thing of the past, the murkier melodies from the last record haven’t disappeared entirely. No more is the bridge between Rated R and LOUD more clearly established than with the singer’s current #1 smash single, “What’s My Name?”

The Ester Dean-penned song effortlessly intertwines the darker synthesized beats of Rated R with the steady, cool Caribbean grooves of LOUD: “Hey boy, I really wanna see if you can go downtown with a girl like me,” Rihanna taunts across the slow, swaying chorus. Like the moodier continuation of “Rude Boy,” “What’s My Name?” is probably Rihanna’s most effortless and obvious #1 singles yet–certainly a crowning achievement of the record.

Toward the end, LOUD completely diverts off-course with its most intriguing offerings.

“Complicated,” one the several highlights of the album, finds the singer delivering one of her most straightforward, soul-bearing performances yet: “‘Cause every minute you start switching up, and you say things like you don’t give a fuck,” Rihanna laments above the song’s chilly, stinging electronic beat. As Rihanna unfolds, so too does the beat, progressing into full on, storming dance pulsations. “Why is everything with you so complicated?” she howls. An incredible track, for sure.

“Skin,” on the other hand, finds Rihanna playing the part of Janet with her most mature cut yet: “No heels, no shirt, no skirt / All I’m in is just skin,” the singer purrs above the song’s naughty, slow-grinding beat. Cue an extended electric guitar solo and some heavy panting and moans, and you’ve got yourself a new addition to the baby makin’ playlist. Not that…people have those. Anyway.

Is LOUD Rihanna’s strongest album to date? No. It contains neither the cohesion and complexity of Rated R, nor the radio friendly, mega-smash hits of Good Girl Gone Bad. That being said, is it just as good as anything else she’s released? You bet–and then some.

From the cocky come-on’s of “What’s My Name?,” to the bratty “So long, bye bye” in “Fading,” everything about this record is completely authentic to Rihanna as an artist. There are no overarching artistic statements being made, nor does the record feel like a collection of strategically selected songs with radio play solely in mind.

LOUD is, quite simply, about letting loose–the most befitting celebration of Rihanna’s legacy yet.

LOUD will be released on November 16. (iTunes)