Rihanna’s ‘Talk That Talk’ Synth-Perfect for an Earlier Time
But it hasn’t always had a home. “Talk That Talk” (Island Def Jam), her sixth album, is maybe the first to suggest the place that’s been hiding in plain sight all along, placing Rihanna squarely at the center of the pop genre best suited for a singer of her fundamental evanescence: dance music, which conveniently is the mode du jour of contemporary RB and pop.
Rihanna’s version of this sound dates to the club music of the early 1990s, an era in which she would have shone. The best songs on this lively and often great album sound synth-perfect for that time. “We Found Love” almost criminally recalls the swinging Crystal Waters singles, with triumphant percussion somewhere between church and seventh-inning stretch. “Where Have You Been” is even better, with hard, chilly synths, snares from the poppier side of house music, and Rihanna moving in and out of a curled Siouxsie Sioux tone. “I been everywhere, man/looking for someone/someone who can please me,” she sings. “Are you hiding from me yeah/somewhere in the crowd?”
“Talk That Talk” is the blithest Rihanna album, which is saying a lot. It has none of the dark, wounded subtext of her more recent albums, almost no sign of scarring left by her tumultuous and abusive relationship with Chris Brown that seemed to hover over her more recent work.
It also signals the extent to which the work of polyglot post-soul, post-dance artists like Santigold and M.I.A. have been absorbed into the mainstream. It’s here on songs like “Red Lipstick” (on the deluxe edition) and “Cockiness (Love It),” on which Rihanna is channeling Neneh Cherry, all pseudo-melodic sass.
“Cockiness (Love It)” is a particular triumph, its beat by the producer Shondrae a booming industrial jumble, and Rihanna easing out come-ons as if she were lapping up milk. That’s followed immediately by “Birthday Cake,” 80 seconds of squelchy bounce and consumption metaphors.
Like Jay-Z and Kanye West’s recent “Watch the Throne,” this album has major parts recorded in hotel rooms, a testament to the globalization and rootlessness of pop, to the outlandish prices of conventional studio time, to the desire to create in an environment of luxury, a liminal space with no repercussions. But that can make for an ungrounded overall experience. When Rihanna veers from the fleet stuff, she’s less certain. “Watch n’ Learn,” which has flickers of Beyoncé’s recent “Party,” has good mouth feel but no taste.
And on songs like “Farewell,” the most bombastic one here, it’s tough to tell if the words have feeling, because Rihanna’s voice doesn’t. When she wants to convey emotion, as on “Drunk on Love,” she essentially shouts the lyrics — “I wear my heart on my sleeve!/Always let love take the lead!/I may be a little naïve!” — but staggers around the melody, a victim of trying to feel too hard.
MARY J. BLIGE
“My Life II … The Journey
Continues (Act 1)”
This record begins with an echo of “My Life,” from 1994, the album often thought to be Mary J. Blige’s best, the one that outlined her as RB’s gravest diva. On the first track of “My Life,” Sean Combs, her producer, calls Ms. Blige and yells into her answering machine. When she picks up, he jolts her into ambition: he challenges her, warns her against haters, tells her to be on time for the session in the morning. She complies, sounding sleepy but combative.
On the first track of this one, she calls Mr. Combs. He is not the producer of this record or anything on it. But he has a stake in its legacy, so she asks him if he minds her recording a follow-up. “It’s not a competitor,” she explains. “It’s a sequel, and an extension of how far we’ve come.” Mr. Combs murmurs something about honesty and life being a marathon, and plugs the older record. As a conversation, even a staged one, it’s so sleepy, so meaningless.
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