The first track on Rihanna’s strobe-thumping new album “Loud” is called “S&M.” Decades after Madonna made a pop-chart fetish of leather, whips and ball gags, this isn’t especially salacious. But it’s quite a spit-take of a title from a pop singer whose last album, “Rated R,” was a harrowing travelogue through the bleak corners of domestic violence. “Loud” is a rave-ready follow-up to that seething, gothic revenge tale, both a considered mission to reclaim Rihanna’s optimism and a hasty move to put tabloid nastiness behind her and get back on the charts.
“Loud” is, at points, a powerful reminder of Rihanna’s skills before the 2009 Grammys incident changed how we read her songs. The minor-key moments are still her best: “Only Girl (In the World)” revives the chilly trance of “Disturbia” with a newly vigorous vocal performance. “I want to make you beg for it, then I’ll make you swallow your pride,” she sings, adding psychosexual venom to an otherwise orthodox dance floor plea. “What’s My Name” has a disarming double-entendre chorus — a line like “Hey boy, I really want to see if you can go downtown with a girl like me” has come-hither undertones, but you can also imagine Rihanna wanting something as exotic as dinner and a movie out on the arm of a good guy. “Man Down” reasserts her Caribbean lilt with a swaggering murder ballad that one can’t help but hear as a warning shot across the radio dial to Chris Brown’s “Deuces.”
But cuts such as “Cheers (Drink to That) and “Raining Men,” as foamy and spunky as they may be, are such a dogleg turn from “Rated R” that they come off as little more than image recalibration. That’s her prerogative as an artist, and it’s certainly earned. But it underscores the one thing we’ve always wondered about Rihanna — what is she really feeling?
Check out the exclusive premiere of LOUD! Listen here! Get LOUD!!