Posts Tagged ‘We Found Love’

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Rihanna – Unapologetic. (album review)

December 2, 2012

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Unapologetic might be Rihanna’s best album yet. In truth, I’ve been struggling to work out how to start a review of this album without referring to her previous masterpiece Rated R, which was a tour de force that exposed an angry, vulnerable girl trying to figure out the aftermath of love gone wrong. This album came out when I was in the midst of trying to untangle and deal with my own feelings of unrequited love, and resonated with me on such a level. On the other hand, Unapologetic comes out when I am happily in love and settled in my own life. This time, Rihanna’s narrative is quite different to my own – and yet Unapologetic, to its credit, still connects with the listener, drawing them into her fury that this time is more simmering than explosive (on Rated R, all-out rage only begins to subside into a quieter, more vulnerable, bubbling – yet nevertheless powerful – anger at around “Photographs”, two thirds of the way through the record).

Of course, Rihanna’s life has changed considerably since then. An even bigger star now than she was 3 years ago with the ability to only release number 1 singles, now she has a number 1 album to match. Meanwhile, her atomic breakup with Chris Brown (precipitated by his fists) has metamorphosed into media-baiting behaviour, ill-advised collaborations with Brown and the rumoured (likely true, if the photographs and ineloquent tweets and confessions of her ex are to be believed) rekindling of their romance. Unapologetic: why shouldn’t Rihanna forgive her abuser, her first love? Why shouldn’t she work with a hot male R&B star? Why can’t she misbehave, smoke, drink, party night after night like anyone in their early twenties? Despite what naysayers like to purvey, her career certainly hasn’t suffered for it. But the material on the album – none of which was written by Rihanna but all of which has a stamp immediately more personal than the scattergun Loud that hit dizzying heights all too infrequently, and than the ultimately unsatisfying Talk That Talk that petered out halfway after such a promising start – displays a thoughtfulness that suggests that while Rihanna may be “unapologetic”, she’s not unaware of what is going on around her, what is happening to her and certainly of what is being said or claimed about her. Unapologetic continues where Rated R left off: there are certainly hits, but nearly every song carries a depth of meaning that exudes confidence, confusion, sex and honesty.

Opener “Phresh Out The Runway” is swag personified, and is effectively Rihanna making an entrance. While it’s great to start the album, and an excellent song to listen to for an immediate energy boost when you’re half-asleep leaving the house on the way to work, it’s not the meaningful content I’ve discussed above. Neither is the other David Guetta collaboration, “Right Now”, a club diversion that rehashes previous album highlight “Where Have You Been” to pleasant but unremarkable effect. But on lead single “Diamonds”, we get a childlike chant, a sparkling midtempo strut and a powerful vocal that lyrically echoes previous megahit “We Found Love”: where there were “yellow diamonds in the sky”, now we are “shining bright like a diamond in the sky”. Rihanna’s vocals have grown more impressive over the years (whatever she’s smoking, I would like some) and where she may have simply been a vehicle for delivering hit songs even on the consistent Good Girl Gone Bad, now it’s she who transforms a song into a smash. The chorus is powerful yet sincere, and lyrics such as the telling “I choose to be happy” betray a sense of desperation in trying to convince herself that a romantic relationship is truly infallible rather than fleeting (as are the moments portrayed in the accompanying video). It’s a fantastic performance, and a refreshingly downbeat choice for a lead single that nonetheless packs punch.

The next trio of songs could all be described as downbeat yet potent, but each has its own place on the album. “Numb” works atop a sensual Egyptian-sounding ostinato and pounding drums, while Rihanna drawls monotonously that nobody “can’t tell her nothing… I’m impaired / I’m going numb, I’m going numb”. Interestingly, the vulnerability continues as the lyrics imply that for all her power and “double-dares”, Rihanna sees herself as the defective one. “Pour It Up” in contrast is celebratory of women who are in charge (like Rihanna, of course)… and yet the vocals and beats are submerged in aural tar, as if Rihanna is high off the champagne, weed and money referenced in the songs. None of these songs are instant, and yet on repeated listens they reveal themselves as worthwhile and interesting – “balling out” may not be as fun as it’s cracked up to be. “Loveeeeeee Song” is also very chill, working from a traditional R&B template that’s chopped and screwed into something less recognisable. It’s a romantic ballad dressed up as a nonchalant come-on. So far, the theme of Unapologetic is that appearances can be deceiving – Rihanna is flawless, cocky, confident, nonchalant, vulnerable, determined to be happy, numb, impaired, intoxicated, worried about “sounding too desperate”, in need of love and affection… It’s a spiralling morass of emotion dressed up as a percolating limousine ride.

Things become much more straightforward with “Jump” – i.e. SMASH. Dubstep breakdowns done right and made fresh and dynamic; a sample of “Pony” by Ginuwine that could have easily been problematic (as is so often the case when interpolating excellent material) but instead elevates the music; Rihanna is cocksure and forthright. But within a couple of songs, we have an explosive ballad that I saw described by a user on Popjustice as “fire and ice blasting out of the ground”. “What Now” is flawless and one of Rihanna’s best works – a mid-tempo ballad that quickly becomes bombastic, overwrought and emboldened by one of her best vocal performances to date. As drums explode and guitars roar to a climax, lyrics profess that “I spent every hour just going through the motions / I can’t even get the emotions to come out / Dry as a bone, but I just wanna shout”. The emotions certainly do come out, so palpably that the cut is utterly absorbing and one of Rihanna’s best. “Stay” directly follows this and is the quietest track on the album, serving as more evidence of Rihanna’s improvements as a vocalist and interpretative singer – she is capable of taking a song and breathe life into it, whatever the subject matter or emotional standpoint. It’s just been confirmed as Unapologetic‘s second single and appears to be a fan favourite, though I wouldn’t go any further than saying the song is fine – I would certainly champion other tracks over this one. But its contrast with the other songs on the album and with Rihanna’s usual output gives it its own place on the album.

“Nobody’s Business”, the duet with Chris Brown, is the perceived “event” of the album, sampling Michael Jackson to boot. But musically it’s a little bit flat – the existence of the duet says more than its sonic attributes. “You’ll always be mine, sing it to the world… ain’t nobody’s business.” Yet another contradiction in an album full of them, both lyrically and musically. Is Rihanna purposefully spiting all of those who supported her during the fallout of her abuse suffered at Brown’s hands? Is it offensive? Or are they just teasing? It seems very pointed when Rihanna sings “Let’s make out in this Lexus” – as opposed to what happened in a car last time! It’s a trying sentiment that seems difficult to understand – but once again, let’s remember that Rihanna is “unapologetic” so what does it matter? She is going to do what she wants, she’s young and in love, and hopefully she won’t get hurt again in such a way. “Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary” is the album’s centrepiece that, like “The Last Song” from Rated R, captivates the listener with exceptionally personal exposure. Where the previous track aims to provoke without any substance to back it up, here the confessional actually reveals a lot. “I was his Marilyn Monroe / Brown eyes, tuxedo, fast cars / A James Dean on the low.” We are clearly taken back to that fateful night of Rihanna’s being attacked (and interestingly, she hints at Chris Brown’s alleged bisexuality to boot, which may or may not have something to do with the night in question).  The bravado of “Nobody’s Business” is completely gone here, and as the song transitions into “Mother Mary”, Rihanna sounds less sure of her swagger: “I swear I wanna change”. The lyrics touch on the nature of fame, as does worthwhile bonus track “Half Of Me”, and implies that whatever we think we know about Rihanna, us outsiders never get to see the whole picture and so we shouldn’t judge… but Rihanna understands that we inevitably will. As much as “Nobody’s Business” claimed to be happy-go-lucky and ready to dive into love-as-sex, “Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary” shows much more depth of thought (as in “What Now”) and heart that encourages repeat listens. This is another highlight of Unapologetic.

The closing songs of the album feel like a plane coming into land. “Get It Over With” is sublime, like a song-length interlude that urges the climax to “come on and fucking rain”; anger gives way to fatigue and surrender to whatever will be, good or bad. “No Love Allowed” is, contrastingly, a deceptively sunny reggae song that once again confounds expectations set up by the previous song. But the lyrics are spooky and uncomfortable, as was its precursor in spirit, Loud‘s “Man Down”. In direct opposition to that song’s subject matter, here it’s Rihanna yelling “911 it’s a critical emergency / Better run run run and charge him with the 143.” It’s a neat (perhaps too neat?) inversion of “Man Down” and seems to shed more light on the Chris Brown saga… but as highlighted in “Half Of Me”, how much do we ever know about Rihanna? We’re not privy to the whole story – according to “Mother Mary”, she’s going to “make the best scene they’ve ever seen.” “Lost In Paradise”, last but not least, is a bass-heavy closer that implies the story is not over, because now Rihanna has to find meaning to the paradise she claims to be stranded in if she ever hopes to find her way out.

For an album where Rihanna does not carry a single songwriting credit (though she is an executive producer), Unapologetic sure feels personal. And honest: an album filled with contradictions that are often calculated but nevertheless sound/feel like they have genuine meaning. The journey of the album is consistently riveting and reveals its complexities on repeated listens. There may be few answers to fans’ questions (however many sordid details it provides), but this rings less as Rihanna being deliberately elusive and more as she herself not quite knowing how to proceed. After all, she’s naked on the damn album cover – how much more vulnerable can one be, clothed only in a flimsy gauze of words, slogans and hashtags? In a world where her lover became her abuser and now may become her lover again, and where soundscapes and lyrics distort and contort around and through her voice, the one thing – no, two things – Rihanna clearly knows is how to release hit singles, and how to craft a powerful album.

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Top 10 albums of 2011.

January 2, 2012

So here is my other annual end-of-year post. I have been able to whittle down my list of favourite albums that were released in 2011 into a nice list of 10, and I have written a twitter-sized (ish!) review under each one. Enjoy and share your thoughts and favourite releases of the year too! 🙂

10. Drake – Take Care

Drake releases another heartfelt hip-hop album, smoother & more cohesive than his debut. Highlights: Take Care, Marvins Room, Shot For Me

9. Rihanna – Talk That Talk (read the full-length review here)

The midpoint between Loud & Rated R. Stellar first half, average 2nd half. Highlights: You Da One, We Found Love, Cockiness (Love It) / Birthday Cake

8. Nicole Scherzinger – Killer Love

Nicole’s solo debut blends killer pop with strong ballads showcasing powerful vocals. Highlights: Poison, Killer Love, Right There, AmenJena

7. Mýa – K.I.S.S.

Mýa continues to deliver solid R&B with her latest album deservedly re-released in the USA. Highlights: K.I.S.S., Take Him Out, Mess Up My Hair, Mr. Incredible

6. Nadia Oh – Colours (read the full-length review here)

The sound of the summer! Deliriously catchy, irresistible dance-pop with tongue firmly in cheek. Highlights: Jump Out The Window, Taking Over The Dancefloor, No Bueno

5. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne (read the full-length review here)

The rap event of the year with production and braggadocio so confidently executed, it couldn’t fail. Highlights: Niggas In Paris, Who Gon Stop Me, Murder To Excellence

4. Natalia Kills – Perfectionist

Masterful, dark pop with powerful imagery to match its consistently hooky and interesting songs. Highlights: Wonderland, Free, Zombie, Mirrors, Broke, If I Was God

3. B.Slade – Diesel

My discovery of the year – the best male vocalist I’ve heard in a very long time, with an impressive lyrical depth and stylistic range. Highlights: B.A.S.S., I’m Done, Do U Get Down?, Dorothy Humperdink, Never Again…, Sequel

(P.S. his new album Stealth. is also excellent, but that only came out on 25th December and I don’t feel I have listened to it enough to be able to judge it – however, it likely would have earned its own place on this list!)

2. Lady Gaga – Born This Way

Lady Gaga just keeps getting better, giving everything she has – heart and soul. Highlights: Marry The Night, Born This Way, Judas, Americano, Yoü and I, The Edge Of Glory

1. Beyoncé – 4 (read the full-length review here)

Genuine soul, classic ballads and earth-shattering uptempos make for Beyoncé’s best album yet. Highlights: the whole album! (you can skip Start Over and the bonus tracks if you’re pushed for time)

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Rihanna – Talk That Talk (album review)

November 19, 2011

Rihanna’s new album Talk That Talk sits somewhere between Rated R – her creative and musical zenith, and Loud – her hit-laden album that couldn’t stop releasing catchy, radio-friendly #1 singles. This is very much a good thing – although the album is not quite as emotionally deep or jagged as Rated R, it has more edge to it than Loud did – think of it as Loud² with the lights turned down.

Lead singles “We Found Love” and “You Da One” are excellent examples of this. The former is a hands-up-in-the-air bittersweet love anthem that incorporates basic 4-to-the-floor dance just as previous lead single “Only Girl (In The World)” did. However, “We Found Love” is lyrically much more sparse and perhaps more potent as a result – the simple refrain of “We found love in a hopeless place” carries more weight. The excellent, vibrant and startling video further brought this song to life, emphasising the exhilarating highs (the high-energy production courtesy of Calvin Harris) and destructive lows (the simple, spare lyrics) of being in an all-consuming love. The album’s opening song “You Da One” is a sticky-sweet treat in the vein of mega-hit “What’s My Name”; it’s a shame that this didn’t come out in the summer, as it is a song to play in the car when you are riding with your boyfriend or girlfriend.

The first half of Talk That Talk is relentless; after “You Da One”, “Where Have You Been” turns the BPM up to ‘insane’, adds an irresistible call to arms in “Wheeeeeeere have you beeeeeeeeeen all my liiiiiiiiiiiiife”, and quickly becomes Rihanna’s best dance single since “Don’t Stop The Music”.  The album’s title track boasts a predatory rap from Jay-Z just like “Umbrella”, and Rihanna adopts a swagger which suggests that she is at once nonchalant and aggressively icy. It’s a curious dichotomy that defines Rihanna’s appeal – sometimes she is effortlessly stylish and seems to throw out hits that succeed in spite of their singer’s lackadaisical approach; and yet, there is some fierce and determined artistry in Rihanna’s heart to make her records work consistently, and to imbue them with heart and a range of emotions that has come through in her best material. At this point in her career, she commands respect.

According to “Cockiness” and its subsequent interlude “Birthday Cake”, Rihanna also commands the bedroom. “Suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion” / “I love it, I love it, I love it when you eat it” are lyrics so aggressively sexual and yet so explicitly chosen for their shock factor that you can’t help but admire Rihanna’s chutzpah. The cherry on top is that she delivers all of these lines as if she couldn’t care less. “Cockiness” is aided by some top-notch production from Bangladesh, while “Birthday Cake” gets dark and dirty thanks to The-Dream. (This song would have been the album highlight did it not inexplicably fade out after 1:18 – possibly the album’s most glaring fault! But fear not – Rihanna is apparently recording a full version, perhaps for a repackage? I am a cynic.)

Of course, in case you were in doubt, Rihanna has a heart too – ballad “We All Want Love” attempts and fails to recreate the epicness of Rated R‘s closer “The Last Song”, and is possibly an album low-point, although Rihanna sings earnestly. “Drunk On Love” is more successful – with a chunkier beat behind her, Rihanna sings about being intoxicated to the point that “nothing can sober me up”, and the desperation in her vocal is palpable.  After this, we’re back to the template of previous Rihanna songs, and “Roc Me Out” is a retread of “Rude Boy” that is perfectly acceptable, if hardly groundbreaking. The song is fine, but it would sound a lot better if “Rude Boy” hadn’t existed. “Watch n’ Learn” incorporates reggae flavour (which was one of the best and most welcome aspects of Loud) and improves upon Loud‘s “It’s Raining Men”. “Watch n’ Learn” is raunchy, as is much of the album, but it’s also laid-back, chilled and bouncy all at once. The closing ballad “Farewell” is somewhat overwrought, but Rihanna’s vocals are impressive and the lyrics speak about wishing a close friend / lover well, and selflessly not holding them back despite wanting to – which is a unique song topic. “Somebody’s gonna miss you / Somebody’s gonna wish that you were here” is a tender lyric that succeeds where “We All Want Love” fell a little bit flat.

Talk That Talk‘s bonus tracks are all decent. “Red Lipstick” reunites Rihanna with Chase & Status for some grimy dubstep; “Do Ya Thing” is another upbeat urban pop song; “Fool In Love” is a muted, electro-ballad that would have fit nicely in the main body of the album. In summary, Talk That Talk does not take the title of Rihanna’s best album; but given the circumstances under which Rated R was produced, that album is pretty special and unique and I wouldn’t wish her to go through that again. Talk That Talk perhaps ties with Good Girl Gone Bad for second place. It’s an album of contradictions – relentlessly sexual and yet unwittingly heartfelt in places; startlingly aggressive and yet disarmingly laissez-faire; there’s a bunch of hit songs on this record that nobody else could have delivered quite as well as Rihanna, and yet a lot of these songs are clearly inspired by earlier Rihanna hits. I believe that Talk That Talk is a calculated album designed for maximum chart success, but at the same time it sounds exactly like who Rihanna is and precisely what kind of music she personally wants to release. It’s a win-win situation for all concerned, including the listener – Talk That Talk is an irresistible ride.