Lip Service: Talking That Talk Between the Sheets with Rihanna (Album Review)

Does any other pop star’s album art talk the talk quite like Rihanna‘s?

Two years ago, the black and gray sheen and jagged metal “R” logo perfectly exemplified the grim, post-apocalyptic noir of Rihanna’s 2009 masterpice Rated R, as the singer menacingly peered out from behind her hand while suited in futuristic space gear, looking like Grace Jones beamed in from the year 3000.

Just a year later in 2010, Rihanna smoldered on the cover of LOUD with her fire engine red coif; her eyes closed and lips pouted with pristine 1970’s disco queen poise (where’s Andy Warhol when you need him?). Accordingly, the collection was largely colored by its StarGate-produced dance floor throbbers (“Only Girl (In The World),” “S&M”) and and airy Island-infused mid-tempo jams (“What’s My Name?” “Man Down”).

With Talk That Talk, her sixth studio album released on November 21, Rihanna has once again rih-invented, this time veering closer toward the Rated R menace, albeit not completely: She’s stripped away the metallic sheen of Rated R and given it a decidedly more street vibe.

Buttoned up in a sleeveless camouflage blouse, she appears sweaty and disheveled, her hair mussed as she grips her forehead. With a hungry glare and a dagger-sharp tongue firmly planted in the corner of her lips, she utterly oozes sex. But this isn’t a candle-lit dinner at the Four Seasons followed by a rose pedal-strewn romp in bed. This is a rough, rowdy back-alley FUCK on break during your mid-day work shift.

And that, in a nutshell, is the essence of Talk That Talk.

If 2009’s Rated R was the gritty, razor-sharp response piece to a very public domestic abuse incident and 2010’s LOUD was the colorful and jubilant (if not slightly necessary) rebound into Top 40 pop jubilee, Talk That Talk is an infinitely cool ‘n’ cocky snapshot of the Barbadian superstar at the height of her career–an incessantly replay-ready, endlessly quotable collection of (largely) rude tunes that epitomize Rihanna’s bratty persona.

Of all the hype surrounding Rihanna’s new record, one of the most scintillating claims made by VH1 was that Talk That Talk was the dirtiest pop record since Madonna‘s Erotica. But after listening, is that truly the case?

Lyrically speaking, perhaps. Like Madonna’s iconic release, Talk That Talk is similar in its unbridled filth factor (and with just as many references to cunnilingus.) Yet whereas Madonna’s iconic 1992 release was filled with slow ‘n’ smoky R&B grooves, vintage record crackles and breathy whispers of pleasure, the thick Caribbean beats and bossy bass lines of Rihanna’s record are more of an instant umph to Madonna’s timeless oooh.

Still, it’s not a bad comparison to make.

“Talk That Talk” is sex, sex, sex. And even when the loving feelings arise, they’re still more X-rated than your standard Taylor Swift-penned enchantment: “You shouldn’t have given it to me good like that/Shouldn’t have hit it like that/Had me yelling like that,” Rihanna dreamily moans at one point during the Dr. Luke-produced smooth-sailing Island groove (and second single), “You Da One.”

With the eternally naughty and endlessly genius pop scribe Ester Dean at the helm–who co-wrote at least half the record–RiRi still manages to play much naughtier than the song implies, especially as the song dives into its grind-worthy dubstep-infused middle eight, clearly inspired by Britney‘s Femme Fatale track “Inside Out” (which was also produced by Dr. Luke).

Elsewhere, Rihanna takes the reigns and leaves little to the imagination: “I’mma do it do it do it/Til’ you can’t take no more/Til’ my lipstick ain’t up on my face no more,” RiRi naughtily speak-sings above the bright, tripping beat of “Watch N’ Learn,” crafted by one of pop/R&B’s newest up-and-comers, Hit Boy.

Speaking of, there’s also “Red Lipstick,” the hugely anticipated deluxe edition track. Produced by Chase & Status and featuring a sample of Metallica‘s “Wherever I May Roam,” the deep dubstep number features a beat called “Saxon” which was originally crafted for Rihanna’s 2009 release, Rated R. After the song’s incredible guide track (starring a just-blossoming rap songstress Nicki Minaj) leaked onto the web, fans had been rallying for a final version of the song to see the light of day. And finally, after penning entirely new lyrics for the track, Rihanna finally felt it to be the right time to release the song.

“Let me grab my dick while you sit on top,” Rihanna taunts like a boss above the warbling beat. And while the final beats remain loyal to the leaked track, the lyrics and melodies aren’t quite as effective as Minaj’s rendition (the opening line of “Guess who, you bitches? It’s RiRi” will be forever missed). Still, “Red Lipstick” manages to be mostly ferocious: “Do you right here while the whole world’s watching!” Rihanna forcefully shouts at one point above the delicious slow-grinder.

And then there’s a little (as in, 1:18 little) track called “Birthday Cake,” produced by The-Dream. “It ain’t even my birthday, but he wanna lick the icing off,” Rihanna taunts as the thick bass humps against the scorching beat.

“He want that cake, cake, cake, cake, cake, cake, cake,” she repeats ceaselessly, producing the most pussy-poppin’ riff on the entire record. But like the singer herself as she delivers a dry-hump onstage to one lucky participant every night during her LOUD Tour, it’s all a blue-balling tease–the track soon trickles off at its most tantalizing moment: “Ooh, I wanna fuck you right now…”

Whether we’ll ever hear the full track remains to be seen (though they’d be absolutely stupid not to premiere it somewhere down the road–re-release?), it’s certainly one of the record’s most memorable and, forgive me, delicious offerings. So why such a tiny taste? Frankly, it’s just cruel.

Despite all the aforementioned moans and thrusts, nothing characterizes the album’s sexploitation quite like “Cockiness (Love It),” the manic, ever-so-slightly cartoon-ish Bangladesh-produced horn-ball explosion. As with his work for Ke$ha (“Sleazy”) and Beyonce (“Diva”), Bangalesh provides RiRi with a most bangin’ X-rated beat and a hefty hunk of bass. “Suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion,” RiRi announces off the top of the track, instantly becoming the album’s signature lyric–well, one of: In fact, every inch of the song is quotable (“She may be the Queen of Hearts, but I’mma be the queen of your body parts!”)–especially when it comes time for the chorus: “I love it, I love it/I love it when you eat it,” RiRi purrs on repeat.

As with LOUD‘s “Man Down,” RiRi takes the opportunity to go full-on reggaeton on this banga, exaggerating her already delightfully thick Barbados accent. At one point, she even invokes her inner Sean Paul and delivers a spot-on rap: “Dive head first if you wanna/Sing to my body/Hold me tight mister lover,” she growls. Looking for another link to Erotica? Bam: It’s the Island rendition of “Where Life Begins.”

“Talk That Talk,” the album’s centerpiece, finds Rihanna enlisting her only guest on the record: Jay-Z, who some (not I) consider the best rapper of our day. And in the album’s second major strike (the first being the length of “Birthday Cake”), there’s his rap–a hugely embarrassing offering. “I be trying to chill, bitches want to fuck me/Every little city I go, fuck me,” the married superstar anguishes off the top of his verse. And it only gets more worse from there: “I’m flying out to Pisa/Just to get some pizza,” H.O.V.A. boasts at one point. I mean…seriously?

Luckily Rihanna’s hook saves the day and salvages the number: “One and two and three and four/Come on, let me know if you want some more,” she infectiously monotones a la her assist on T.I.‘s “Live Your Life.”

If anything, the melody of “Talk That Talk” helps to underscores the fact that the StarGate-produced, Ester Dean-penned 2009 mega-smash “Rude Boy” has provided a blueprint for many of Rihanna’s later hits. “Give it to me baby, gi-gi give it to me baby,” Rihanna urges during the bangin’ (yet familiar) middle eight.

The same applies to the incredibly infectious “Roc Me Out,” yet another StarGate-produced, Ester Dean-penned number: “Come over boy, I’m so ready/You’re taking too long to get my head on the ground/And my feet in the clouds,” she impatiently begs above the thick beats–once again largely reminiscent of “Rude Boy,” albeit with a slightly rougher and rowdier edge.

And while the StarGate/Dean/Rihanna team effort is undoubtedly a winning force, the results are becoming familiar.

Apart from the album’s most filthiest offerings, the album’s two undeniable highlights are in its two love (and sweat) drenched dance floor fillers: “We Found Love” and “Where Have You Been.”

The former, already a proven instant smash hit #1 single across the world, found Rihanna making her first foray into Ibiza-friendly territory thanks to Scottish DJ/producer, Calvin Harris. Characterized by an unbelievably infectious beat all centered around one gorgeous lyric on repeat (“We found love in a hopeless place”), the album’s lead single is an explosion of euphoric synthesizers, leading to the most major rave moment for the Barbadian superstar.

Well, second most.

“Where Have You Been” isn’t only the album’s greatest achievement, but one of the greatest songs of 2011. Co-produced by Dr. Luke, Cirkut and Calvin Harris, the genius dance-pop number is like listening to “Don’t Stop The Music” on ecstasy. “I been everywhere man, looking for someone,” Rihanna sadly croons off the top of the misleadingly somber song opening. “Where have you been?/’Cause I never see you out/Are you hiding from me, yeah?/Somewhere in the crowd,” Rihanna suddenly yelps, immediately launching the song into a throbbing 21st century torch track.

Yet while the song’s chorus is already a major smash, she dives deeper: “Where have you been all my l-i-i-ife?” Rihanna chants as the song relentlessly bangs harder and harder, at last bursting at the seams and exploding into a furious, gasp-inducing grind ‘n’ winding synth breakdown. It’s by far her greatest dance number to date, and whenever it’s finally released, Rihanna’s bound to redefine to word “reign” yet again.

While the majority of Talk That Talk is devoted to dick and dancing, Rihanna does find occasionally the time to wipe the sweat from her brow in between for some introspection–and she shines when she does.

“Drunk On Love,” the StarGate-produced track destined to divide listeners for its extensive sample of indie-pop outfit The XX‘s album track “Intro,” is one of album’s other major highlights. And despite what indie purists may whine, the sample works effortlessly–resulting in the album’s most gorgeous moment. “I wear my heart on my sleeve/Always let love take the lead/I may be a little naive,” Rihanna pours out above the hypnotic sample. “You know that I’m drunk on love,” Rihanna repeats in a fragile falsetto.

“Farewell,” the album’s closer produced by “Love The Way You Lie” hit-maker Alex Da Kid, may well have been recorded during the Rated R era. “I don’t wanna be the reason you don’t leave, so farewell,” Rihanna yelps miserably. Much like “The Last Song” or “Firebomb,” RiRi shines on devastation ballads–although the song admittedly doesn’t reach such emotional heights as on her Rated R work.

For those bemoaning the lack of emotional depth or technical skill displayed on the standard edition of Talk That Talk, the ultimate be-all, end-all argument comes in the form of the deluxe edition’s final moment: “Fool In Love,” easily one of Rihanna’s best vocal performances to date, if not the best.

“Mama,” Rihanna belts above an ambient electronic backdrop, “I found a man.” (I was half expecting her to continue with “just killed a man.” Hello, Queen undertones!) Much like Britney’s Femme Fatale closer “Criminal,” Rihanna finds herself stating her case after falling in love with a man that’s nothing but trouble. What follows is an utterly explosive, gut-wrenching vocal performance: “So I guess I’m a fool in love, but I’m willing to look so stupid ’til I had enough,” she sings, her voice powerfully belting out while fluttering across octaves. It’s purely a next-level moment for Rihanna, proving yet again how much the young singer still has to offer as an artist.

As is fairly well known in RiRi lore, the Talk That Talk sessions began while the Bajan sensation was out on her worldwide LOUD Tour, originally meant for a re-release package of LOUD. After enough recording however, it became clear that an entirely separate body of work was forming in the studio.

And so Rihanna continued to record as she traveled from the US to the European leg, performing in makeshift recording studios built backstage at arenas and in hotels across Europe.

The photos that Rihanna’s team uploaded behind-the-scenes during the final few hours of Talk That Talk sessions provide a glimpse into the chaos: We see an ever-effervescent RiRi sitting with her producers in a make-shift studio in a foreign hotel suite, scribbling down notes on the floor with her guide lyrics, crossing off tracks until completion, and popping bottles in celebration. (According to Entertainment Weekly‘s review, the hotel room numbers where each song was recorded are even included in the liner notes.) But given how piecemeal the record was, it’s all the more surprising to hear that Talk That Talk is arguably her most cohesive album to date.

Though the ghost in the machine of Rated R is nowhere to be found on Talk That Talk, Rihanna’s latest release is nearly on par with her 2009 grand opus. Not quite, as Rated R captured an emotional vulnerability and an edginess in production that remains unmatched–but it’s close.

Lest we forget, the album was recorded by a 23-year-old woman jet-setting across the world on tour as one of the biggest pop stars in the world: It’s a perfect encapsulation of a (particularly frisky) young superstar on top, embodying her cocky brand of sexual humor and playfully brash attitude, and perhaps the most ‘Rihanna’ record in her discography yet.

Her detractors will often complain–in one of the more ridiculous criticisms I’ve heard–about the frequency of her releases. Indeed, Rihanna’s released an album every single year since 2005 (except 2008, when a reloaded edition of Good Girls Gone Bad was issued instead.) To compare, in the time that Katy Perry‘s Teenage Dream campaign began–starting with “California Gurls” in May of 2010, Rihanna’s moved through three entire album cycles, releasing Rated R‘s “Te Amo” in June, moving into the LOUD era later last year, and now with the Talk That Talk era.)

Yet it never feels like work: Her artistry has only continued to evolve. The songs keep getting better. Her impact is getting stronger. After over seven years in the industry, Rihanna has grown into a full-on entertainer and cultural force rather than the mere voice on the radio she once was back in 2005, and there’s certainly no doubt that she’s improved exponentially as a performer (compare “Umbrella” at the 2007 VMA’s to her performance of “We Found Love” on X Factor last week.)

Talk That Talk is an excellent pop record, chock-full of infectious rhythms and finger-lickin’ freaky-deeky hooks. Every track purrs with personality and plenty of sex appeal, bursting at the seams with Ri’s signature cockiness.

While she may not be the most gifted vocalist nor a particularly incredible dancer, Rihanna remains one of the industry’s most thoroughly refreshing and wholly enjoyable pop acts. If she continues down this path–rather, if the Rihanna reign continues to not let up (scientists are still hard at work diligently calculating a reign end date to no avail), there’s no telling where the woman who once claimed she wanted to become “the black Madonna” may end up climbing.

The fact is that Rihanna is simply doing everything right.

Talk That Talk was released on November 21. (iTunes)

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