I tend to form extreme opinions about musical artists. This is mainly because a) I mainly listen to artists rather than bands, which probably indicates that I am as interested in the persona as the music and b) I have an entire cultural language based on my dislike/adoration of musical artists.
Rihanna has always been in the adoration category. I was immediately hooked on the thumping aggression of SOS and, for the most part, haven’t looked back. OK, I never liked her ballads, and I didn’t like Disturbia until I saw the video. But I always overlooked those as anomalies because otherwise Rihanna was perfect. And Rated R? Oh so good!
I try not to write about music here because this is a fashion blog, but at this point Rihanna is as much a fashion icon as a musical artist, so I’m making an exception. (Like all the exceptions I made for Fever Ray. Ahhhhhhh well.) Plus, I have been thinking of nothing else for the past few days. I am uncontrollable.
(all photos Steven Klein)
Another reason this album is worth covering here: it has a distinct aesthetic that is very much rooted in fashion. The whole thing is about beauty, strength and glamor versus death and vulnerability. How many times do magazines tell us to work against type? The fashion equivalent of this album would be dark, steely, and gorgeous.
As far as actual songs go, there are five that I absolutely love right now: Rude Boy, G4L, Wait Your Turn, Te Amo, and Cold Case Love.
Rude Boy is the best thing I’ve heard in ages. It’s catchy, sexy, and subversive. On first listen, Rihanna sounds in charge: the lyrics are all statements of demand, and the song has a certain inertia that implies total control. Then you get to the bridge: “I like the way you touch me there/I like the way you pull my hair.” Ah. It becomes clear that the facade of control is actually a plea for love via submission, probably a reference to her relationship with Chris Brown. Of course she’s going to mention it–it had a major influence on her life, and we want to here about it. And she does it just right. In Rude Boy, she talks candidly without typecasting herself as a victim. The song is both chilling and sexy. It’s the perfect song to dance to late at night while contemplating the human condition. How many songs fulfill that requirement?
G4L is even darker. It has the pace of a ballad, but it’s so much more–if anything, it reminds me of Sanctuary from Madonna’s darkest album, Bedtime Stories, crossed with the bittersweet glory of M.I.A.’s Paper Planes. Here, Rihanna subverts the hardened criminal image by juxtaposing tough phrases like “gangster for life” with a slushy wall of noise that screams death. Vocally, she is overwhelmed by the instrumentation and seems frighteningly detached. The chorus is not an homage to a way of life, but a death sentence.
Wait Your Turn is possibly the catchiest tune on the album. Where Rude Boy and G4L are restrained, Wait Your Turn is immediate and frantic. The verse is percussive and nearly monotone, starting and ending with Rihanna repeating “the wait is ova.” The melodic relief of the chorus is short-lived–each time the pace slows, it’s jolted back into mayhem by the dark and labyrinthine line “it’s just the way the game is played, it’s best that you just wait your turn.” This one reminds me of the darker songs from Blackout, like Get Naked (I Got A Plan) and Toy Soldier.
Probably the main reason I love Te Amo is that it pulls off a bicurious theme with all the subtlety that Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl lacked. Ah, a song with a girl-on-girl theme that’s not about hipsters performing for a the male gaze! Sympathetic characters! Crazy, right? Sexy gay girl action is trendy right now, both in fashion (aha! relevance!) and music–Britney’s done it twice in the last year with If You Seek Amy and 3. None of it seems particularly genuine or individual, but rather derived of male fantasy images. Not so with Te Amo–like Katy Perry, she remains noncommittal, but the difference there is no audience, male or female, and she expresses her feelings compassionately. Besides that, Te Amo has a gorgeous melody. The Spanish guitar, the African drums, the gently pulsing synth–the instrumentation is light and sugar-sweet. It’s super catchy, too.
On to Cold Case Love. It’s one of those songs that is so simple it sticks. Rihanna spends a good deal of the song singing the title line on a measured descending scale. This result is quiet and repetitive with a great build. It reminds me of Kanye’s Love Lockdown, only more melody, less drums, and less autotune. This is also the song with the most transparent to her dysfunctional relationship, with lyrics like “your love was breaking the law but I needed a witness.” It’s not angry or accusatory, but it is one of the few songs on the album where she seems strong and empowered even while singing about her powerlessness. This is the song that should be a single but probably won’t be. Whenever a song like this succeeds on the charts, it is regarded as a fluke–who predicted that Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head would capture and hold the attention of a mainstream audience? Cold Case Love is another slow, quiet song that has a killer hook and gets under your skin. Here’s hoping that mass voyeurism will propel this song to the center stage.
Done! Sorry for the essay, I can’t help myself.