By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; C03
After squeezing five huge albums into her tiny six-year career, here's what we actually know about Rihanna: She sang a summer-defining love song about a parasol. She owns an anguished, sweet-and-sour voice and ravishing good looks. And, of course, she survived a hyper-publicized trauma when fellow pop star and then-beau Chris Brown assaulted her on the eve of the 2009 Grammy Awards.
Aside from that, 22-year-old Robyn Rihanna Fenty remains enigmatic to the point of inscrutability -- a dilemma that officially becomes obnoxious with her new disc "Loud."
It was less than a year ago that she dropped "Rated R," a courageous yet confused breakup album that tried to pull the singer's teary-eyed rage into focus. Now, 361 days later, Rihanna comes bouncing back onto the dance floor that made her a superstar, toting a clutch of stolen identities and some fizzy, upbeat tunes written to convince us that she's a whiskey-shooting bar fly, a gun-packing assassin and an unabashed S&M enthusiast. She only proves herself as one thing: a singer of Mary J. Blige-ian gifts.
Or is she? Contrary to what a decade of "American Idol" has taught us, great singing isn't about pitch, attitude or how much fun you're having up there, dawg. It's about being able to sing a song like you've lived it.
This album makes you wonder if Rihanna's ever lived anywhere else than behind a microphone. She's a technician above all, and can credit her success to a massive fan base that finds such uber-precision irresistible.
"Loud" is resistible. And impenetrable. And largely forgettable.
"Cheers (Drink to That)" is a career lowlight about dousing your woes in Jameson. "Turn it around with another round," Rihanna bellows over the mid-tempo slog, as if setting ad copy to music. As for the assassin bit, it comes during "Man Down," a strange, siren-infused murder fantasy about randomly offing a guy at a train station, all set to a wandering reggae beat. The bedroom fantasies aren't much juicier on "S&M," with Rihanna expressing her affinity for "chains and whips" while doing her best Lady Gaga pantomime. Amid the giddy electronic thump of "Only Girl (In the World)" she sounds like any old girl in the world.
So bring in the personalities! Nicki Minaj, a quick-witted rapper able to assume the voices of a dozen characters in a single song, fails to impart any wisdom on her colleague with "Raining Men," while Eminem shows up for a reprise of "Love the Way You Lie," a controversial radio hit about domestic violence.
With "Love the Way You Lie (Part II)," the maniac-mouthed rapper is limited to just one verse, giving Rihanna the space to take ownership of the proceedings. Will the real Rihanna please stand up?
She does -- and she sounds as remote as ever.
"Only Girl (In the World)"