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Album review: Rihanna's 'Talk That Talk'

November 20, 2011 |  8:52 pm

The singer works that NC-17 territory, but the sauciness sometimes borders on shtick. With an eye toward Middle America, it's mostly just insinuation.


Were she willing to tip her hand a little earlier, Rihanna might have considered kicking off her new album, "Talk That Talk," with "Watch n' Learn," which appears near the end of the 11-song release and best captures the Barbados-born singer's most prominent obsession. On it, Rihanna, who over the last half-decade has risen to become one of the most successful pop artists in the world, outlines the myriad ways in which she'll have her way with a lover.

On the bed, on the couch, on the floor, till you're making faces, till you can't take it no more, slow, until her lipstick ain't up on her face no more. Rihanna reels off her carnal intentions with an impressive though not entirely believable candor.

The 23-year-old star, who's been gliding toward the edges of pop propriety since her first hit in 2005, has progressively pushed toward NC-17 territory, moving from the insinuation of "Umbrella" to the naughtier "Hard" and the Caribbean-flavored murder ballad "Man Down," from 2010's "Loud." The parental warning stickers have done wonders for her career, but the sauciness sometimes borders on shtick.

That said, "Talk That Talk" is not entirely sex-obsessed. For balance's sake, and because she's making music in the pop realm and beholden to relatively conservative mores, Rihanna on "Talk That Talk" also harnesses her producers and songwriters -- including Dr. Luke, StarGate, Alex Da Kid, The-Dream and others -- to focus love above the waist and how passion affects both the body and the mind. Throughout, she plays on the idea that we all want the same thing out of life -- to be "drunk on love" (as she sings in a song of the same name).

She eases into her bed over the course of the album, first with a loving confession -- "You Da One," a Dr. Luke-produced jam with a hint of Jamaican roots reggae and a punchy synthetic rhythm -- then with wandering desire and heartbroken regret. There are odes to bad love -- "We Found Love" -- and universal love -- "We All Want Love." "Drunk on Love," which samples the slow-burn melody of the XX's "Intro," finds Rihanna confessing that love is the only thing she needs.

She delivers her sentiments inside a pan-American pop sound with a hint of the long musical conversation between the Caribbean and Americas. It's a stylistic accent that she's carried with her from Barbados, though she employs it with her collaborators enough to suggest her linage without alienating Middle America. She can slip into a convincing patois when so inclined but seldom does so on "Talk That Talk."

Rather, Rihanna wants her music to bang, and she does so by continuing to mine the connection between R&B, hip-hop and house. A few of these tracks, most obviously "We Found Love," her collaboration with Scottish producer Calvin Harris, and "Where Have You Been," wouldn't be out of place at Electric Daisy Carnival.

Even the slower songs feature double-snare riddims that suggest energy, even when paced down; overall, the bass is heavier, the sounds are nastier, and by the second half of the record, Rihanna's intentions are decidedly, unapologetically .... hornier. Call it Technotronic on steroids, Lady Gaga on Viagra, Millie Jackson on ecstasy: These are pumped-up hits aimed at the pelvic region.

But ultimately, Rihanna's making only superficially dangerous music. Without the visual prompting of her music videos, even the bawdiest lyrics are kept within the realm of average American propriety. Yes, there's some breast and booty, but Bo Carter was way raunchier in the 1930s with "It's Done Got Wet" and "Pin in Your Cushion" than Rihanna is in 2011 with "Cockiness (Love It)" and "Birthday Cake," both of which feature lyrics that wouldn't seem out of place on Spinal Tap's "Smell the Glove." ("… cake, cake, cake, cake, cake, cake, cake/ I know you wanna bite this.")

For all the innuendo and introspection, "Talk That Talk" contains little sweat, slobber or fluids and a lot of plasticized, inflatable insinuation. (Recall her song "S&M," which name-checked whips and chains without ever having to use the words sadism or masochism.)

The hottest lines on the album come nearly as an afterthought on the all-too-brief "Birthday Cake," produced by The-Dream. "I know you wanna bite this/ It's so enticin'/ Nothin' else like this/ I'mma make you my bitch," she sings. But as if the network censors had let the song run before realizing their mistake, a little over a minute into it the music fades out, just as it's getting dirty, leaving us wondering whether Rihanna really believes what she's selling on "Talk That Talk."

"Talk That Talk"
Def Jam
Two stars (Out of four)

-- Randall Roberts


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Photo: CD cover image released by Island Def Jam Music Group.