Rihanna is the perfect pop star.
Her new album Talk That Talk sports everything from hard-hitting, dancefloor euphoria to slow-burning, guitar-driven power balladry. She’s everything to everyone; an essential quality for a pop star.
Of course, she also embodies the cynical, misleading nature of mainstream pop, major label creations: keep the music formulaic and familiar, while radically altering the artist’s image and appearance with each album cycle. She’s Madonna without the substance or autonomy. Janet Jackson without any sonic or thematic risks.
And yet she’s unstoppable.
This artistic vapidity makes her the kind of pop star that people who hate pop music absolutely hate.
Each of her albums is presented as some “new phase” in her career, the next step in her “musical evolution.” In actuality, Talk That Talk follows roughly the same trajectory as her previous two albums, Loud (2010) and Rated R (2009). The actual sounds have been updated slightly from her previous work (homegirl has to keep up with the times, right?). But every Rihanna album follows a fail-proof pattern; begin light-hearted, danceable and fun, and then gradually sober up into “meditative” balladry.
This “sobering up” happens midway through Talk That Talk, with standout track “We All Want Love.” It is comically jarring in the context of the album. Riri’s looking for her one and only on this anthemic-yet-tender track. Yet one song prior, she wants to “fuck you right now” and “make you my bitch” on the absurdly raunchy “Birthday Cake.”
In other words, there’s no story being told here. Talk That Talk isn’t meant to be an immersive listen. It’s a collection of singles, period.
Sounds bad, right? Well, fortunately (or…unfortunately) I’m a sucker for vapid, substance-less pop, so I absolutely love Talk That Talk. Like Britney’s Femme Fatale, Talk That Talk is a producer’s album. Rihanna’s charisma is what keeps you listening more or less, but she has shamelessly left the “artistry” up to a great team of writers and producers. And they do a phenomenal job with Talk That Talk, giving each track its own unique vibe and appeal.
“We Found Love” is the best dance-pop song of the year, the Jay-Z-assisted title track manages to out-swag their previous collabo “Run This Town,” and the supremely naughty “Watch N’ Learn” feels both innocent and sleazy somehow (and might be about 69ing…).
All of these songs are fun, and catchy, and contemporary. And while Riri’s no Mariah, her vocals here are consistently magnetic and self-assured. All in all, Talk That Talk is probably the best pop album of the year.
So If you’re hungry for something of great social and political import, go curl up with some Marx.
The rest of us’ll be listening to Talk That Talk.
And having FUN.