Oh, lady, you just earned our 15 bucks. Rihanna will sell millions of copies of Loud, her fifth album, and she’ll deserve every penny of it — not because it’s a dependably excellent club-shaker, though it is, but because no woman should have to endure the kind of pick-up line Drake shoots her way on “What’s My Name,” the record’s second single. “I heard you good with those soft lips / Yeah you know word of mouth,” purrs the Canadian rapper (and Ri-Ri’s rumored fling). “The square root of 69 is 8 something, right / ‘Cuz I been trying to work it out.”
Woof. But while Casanova rolls over in his grave, Rihanna smirks and takes it in stride. Drake may open the track, but she reigns in their shared world — with a coquettish flip, she glides into a chorus that leaves no doubt: “Hey boy, really wanna see / If you can go downtown with a girl like me.” In the video, she struts happily around New York’s Lower East Side in a zebra-striped jacket, a nod to the actual animal she sat atop in the video for last year’s “Rude Boy” — with her bodysuit covered in Keith Haring-esque graffiti to match the floor and walls, like Haring himself was bodypainted to melt into his own squiggly backdrop in Annie Liebovitz’s 1986 portrait. “Rude Boy,” from last year’s defiantly terse but uneven Rated R, was released when the young pop star was still struggling to overcome her well-documented romantic difficulties with boyfriend Chris Brown, and seemed about to melt into the tabloid stories.
One year later, at just 22 years old, the remarkably sharp Barbadian-born pop star is now a woman with full, healthy claim to her sexuality, someone who’ll trill the sauciest lines while making damn sure her company is worth her while. None of the salacious hooks are a promise to any man, because they’re delivered for her own empowerment, and Loud offers a confident female ethos on par with the best of Beyonce or Shakira. Even in Rihanna’s darkest moments, she asserts that she deserves the best because she offers it in return.
Vocally and production-wise, lead single “Only Girl in the World” sets the album’s tone — Loud is nothing if not a literal title. Rihanna is at full-scale belt, and each track seems alchemized to induce the backing harmonies of hundreds of tipsy dancers. On the lasciviously bass-heavy opener “S&M,” the singer’s voice goes stratospheric over an electro pulse; “Man Down” forays into dancehall with poppy pep. “Cheers (Drink to That)” inexplicably samples Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You” (just the “yeah-yeah” yawps) and the thin track, produced by Runners, can’t support Rihanna’s forceful verses. But “California King Bed” is a wrenching ballad about the waking death of a relationship, the stage of limbo before the final crash; it’s so well-delivered, in fact, that it’s hard to hear.
“Raining Men” is the album’s highlight, a gloriously eccentric collaboration with Nicki Minaj that entwines their minor-key hyperventilating, air sirens dissolving into mind-melting bass, and the scene-stealing Minaj’s breathless contortion of the simple word “really” into its own fully demented sideshow.
Loud is a hard-won battle, and for that, it almost makes sense that it doesn’t contain any tracks as effortlessly bright as Rihanna’s 2007 zeitgeist smash “Umbrella.” This is a more mature nod to the bubbly pop that established her fame. And it’s a statement from a woman who’s come into her own, and who won’t be going anywhere that isn’t worth her while. We could all do worse than to follow her lead.