With Aubrey “Drake” Graham ushering in a new era of complicated, emotion-drenched man-swag, it’s only natural for Rihanna — the woman he claims once broke his heart — to emerge as his inverse, a tough-skinned, roost-ruling power lover. Stuffing her music with subversive sexuality and straight-up freakiness, she simultaneously puts up a wall, brassily challenges suitors to please her, and assumes they’ll fail. On Talk That Talk‘s “Roc Me Out,” she coyly dares a dude to sex her up, but then hits him with the punch line: “I’ll let you in on a dirty secret / I just wanna be loved.” From another artist, this might be a song about self-doubt. From Rihanna, it’s like she’s willfully withholding faith and throwing it back just to tantalize. The Jay-Z reference (and collabo!) does not go unnoticed.
The occasionally perfect pop on Talk That Talk softens the concept. Where last year’s Loud had a hefty helping of unshakable singles, this album’s arc, however simple — sex, love, sex, repeat — is cohesive and sweet. And for someone whose persona is so “bad-girl rock star,” Rihanna sure loves techno music. Of all the dubstep-savvy starlets rolling out recently, she was the first by several years (2009’s underrated Rated R), and this album doesn’t skimp on 4 A.M. synths: “Where Have You Been” is tailor-made for a Coachella pool rave, while “Birthday Cake” and the Bangladesh-produced “Cockiness (Love It)” deliver elated, global-bass super-boom.
Even the requisite tinny StarGate ballad, a grandiose reinterpretation of the xx’s “Intro,” is doused with lusty passion, analogizing love to liquor. Still, it’s alpha-chick sexual power that wins out; as she sings on the lush highlight “Watch and Learn”: “If you learn how / I’ll stay.” It’s Rihanna’s game and there’s very little chance you’ll win — but she’d love it if you tried.