If Lady Gaga is an android sent from the future and Beyonce is a Sherman tank of bottomless ambition and great teeth and Britney Spears is a human vacancy sign, what is Rihanna? She could be anyone. She’s a shapeshifter to be sure, a blur of hit singles and brightly colored weaves. But what else? There isn’t another entertainer in the public eye who seems so remote, so indifferent to its gaze.
“Take a peek at the girl I hide,” she sings on “Roc Me Out,” one of the lesser tracks on her formidable new album, “Talk That Talk.” “I’ll let you in on a dirty secret / I just wanna be loved.” For Rihanna, who rarely breaks the fourth wall, it’s a strategic concession to public curiosity, although the song might have had more meaning if the singer herself had been one of its multiple co-writers.
Most Rihanna albums have a theme, and “Talk” is no different. “Rated R,” the 2009 disc made after her assault by, and breakup with, Chris Brown, was a protracted revenge tale. Its conspicuously party-hearty follow up, “Loud,” was an admission that “Rated R” had taken its joyless theme too far. The impeccably assembled, 100 percent flyweight “Talk That Talk” positions Rihanna as an Everygirl in search of romance, sex and a good party.
Rihanna’s top notch producers, including usual suspects such as The-Dream and StarGate, have trawled the clubs for the latest in Euro and electro pop, homogenized only as necessary. There’s dubstep-influenced island pop on the solid opener “You Da One,” giddy house (by way of Johnny Cash) on “Where Have You Been,” 4/4 bliss on the Calvin Harris-assisted “We Found Love,” and a slip of an xx track, “Intro,” anchoring the ballad “Drunk On Love.”
“Talk” is thick with Rihanna’s usual, overly labored double and triple entendres, her weird sort of affectless raunch. When, on the jittery, overlong-at-78-seconds “Birthday Cake” she finally dispenses with the pleasantries with one devastatingly direct line (we can’t repeat it in a family newspaper, but it’s easily the bluntest thing we’ve ever heard from a mainstream pop singer), she says it with all the erotic charge of someone learning how to program her DVR.
The rest of the time Rihanna sounds better, more present, than she ever has. She pries a hook out of the aimless “Watch n’ Learn” using some kind of superdiva Jaws of Life. She can’t do much with the hapless digital jam “Cockiness (Love It)” which features lyrics like “Enter my diamond matrix / Devour my golden flower,” but even a superdiva can’t fix everything. She even escapes unscathed from the sinkhole that is a Jay-Z guest feature; Her mentor takes his usual victory lap on the title track with a verse that seems recycled from “Crazy in Love,” save for a mention of the “singer-slash-actress in my bedroom.” For Rihanna, it’s a pointed reminder of her chart-topping rival; for everybody else, it’s a gratuitous attention-suck. When it comes to breaking the fourth wall, Rihanna learned from the best.
“Where Have You Been,” “We All Want Love,” “You Da One”