Rihanna Crosses to Dark Side, But Not Far Enough

i stole this glove from beyonce, but it's cool, it looks way more convincing on me anyway

So, Rated R. I still have a hard time knowing what criteria to use when considering the strengths of a pop album, because pop stars are not made by their full length albums, but by the strength of their singles and their image/aesthetic. I love pop music these days, but there are very few albums from this decade’s Billboard artists that I still find engaging or good.

Good Girl Gone Bad had a few excellent singles (“Umbrella,” “Disturbia”), while the rest (“Take a Bow,” “Rehab”) were conservative ballads that were timeless in a bad way: totally generic and characterless. There were a couple of “Watch out! I’m Rihanna and I’m really mad” songs, but those fell flat due to the flakiness of the production; sirens hesitantly blared and should have been more urgent, electric guitars were not nearly abrasive enough, etc. The “bad girl” was barely present; when she was, she was doing stupid stuff like throwing around some nice china and driving fast. Rihanna could have handled tough sounds and a tougher, more avant-garde image, but I suspect her production team was trying to preserve some femininity for the somewhat robotic and aloof star. Verdict: Good Girl Gone Bad was a transitional album, with tween-pleasing characterless ballads and sparingly few jolts of truly forward-looking shit.

Rated R has nothing as good as “Umbrella,” but the sad-sack songs have vastly improved, and, aesthetically, the album is a slightly more cohesive statement than Good Girl Gone Bad. Visually, Rihanna has finally given in to the darkness that she has always courted. The album cover features Rihanna as Siouxsie Sioux in 1982, or something, instead of the curvaceous Barbados babe she was on her last cover. Musically, the album is not as dark as it purported. The album opener is a strange little ditty inviting the listener into the “Mad House.” The organs and narration are straight outta “Thriller,” MJ’s compelling and enduringly spooky musical testament to the weird.

But it all gets lighter from there. In “Hard,” Rihanna’s newest single, she reminds us that she’s a hard mofo; unfortunately, it features Mr. Young Jeezy, who rhymes about heart attacks… again. Remember this, from Kanye’s “Amazing”?: “Standin’ at the podium/tryin’ to watch my sodium/die of high blood pressure/that or let the feds getcha.” What the fuck? What does a podium have to do with anything? Pfork gave “Hard” a 7 out of 10 as a single rating, but I am not convinced that this song is even that good. Even though Rihanna’s diction conveys her robotic strength as an elemental, necessary force, the song is a little silly; for example, none of the instruments sound good, and nothing sounds particularly hard. They should have put some chainsaws (or something) in the song to make it sound more convincingly badass.

“Hard” is followed by songs falling into one or other of these categories: conservative ballad, a la her old days, but with a darker lyrical bent, or stupid, stupid lite rock song. How come R&B and pop people can’t figure out how to make a guitar sound cool? Also, the pianos in “Firebomb” are cut from the Disney-single playbook. You know those Disney singles? Like Christina Aguilera’s version of that Mulan song? Ugh, those sparkly pianos. What I am trying to say is that all the guitars and pianos and everything sound like muzak in many Rihanna songs. This is especially true of the song “Firebomb,” which, again, doesn’t have enough power to sound like it could have things to do with real firebombs. Which are powerful!

Producers on Rated R include the-Dream, Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake and other cool people; so how come this album sounds bad so much of the time? I hate to bring her up, but let’s talk about Lady Gaga for a second. This woman took an aesthetic and ran with it. She collected all the 90s euro synths she could, and hoarded them onto her album. If she was going to fail, she would fail miserably, as all her eggs were in one musical basket that sounded a bit like 90s Cher. But, hey, guess what, it worked! Congrats, Lady Gaga, you milked 6 singles off of one cd, and they pretty much all sound the same! Rihanna would do well to take a similar chance.

Sometimes, when Rihanna tries to go all classic, it works. “Te Amo” and “Cold Case Love” are both pretty beautiful, touching songs, and they will both age well. (Nevermind that “Cold Case Love,” JT’s contribution, sounds a lot like the gospel choir part of “Losing My Way.”)

Sometimes, songs sound eerily familiar. The dreaded will.i.am makes an appearance on “Photography,” a song whose parts are pretty much jacked from the verses of Kanye’s “Love Lockdown” and Burial’s love-lorned warbles on “Archangel.” I guess will.i.am is finally running out of ideas; thank god, maybe he will leave us soon.

Sometimes, the songs are just right. Take “Rude Boy.” This could be Rihanna’s thing: it’s a fast-paced dance/sex jam replete with synthesized steel drums reminiscent of the Caribbean. The song is a shout out to a rude boy, who Rihanna dares not to get it up for her. Clearly ‘rude boy,’ just sorta means gangsta in this song, and has no specifically place/time rooted identity; too bad–Rihanna and some dude in suspenders, a fedora and skinny black tie dancing in a sultry club surrounded by Jamaican palm trees and 14 kinds of rum would have made for a hot video.

In conclusion, Rihanna needs to come up with a production team that can create all the power she is singing about. She needs to take some chances on an aesthetic, and I think her next move could easily be a sort of goth Caribbean musical hybrid. She’s a big enough star that we’ll all still be with her for her next move.


Hey, shut up, Kid Sister is pretty good

de colores... de kid sister

Kid Sister’s debut album, Ultraviolet, finally came out yesterday after a couple years of hype. I need not get into the whole drama, cuz many others have already done so. The point is, 2 years ago we heard/were amused by the song “Pro Nails.” Kanye was slightly less ubiquitous then, so when he guested on that song, peeps’ ears perked up, and Kid Sister got a hometown boost from fellow Chicagoan Kanye.

I have just one thing to say to Ultraviolet‘s haters: this album should be heard in the context of what we hear on the radio. The production sounds like it cost about a million dollars more than any Jay Sean/Jason DeRulo/Treyz Songs/Drake/whoevs ’90sesque club single. Defmute asked me, all concerned, “Are there Chris Brown synths?” This means: “How generic and cheap does her production sound?” My answer: Not bad. Heard on hi-def headphones, the opening eurodisco stomp of “Right Hand Hi” sounds pretty darn expensive.

True, Ultraviolet is not in league with genre-bending high-minded pop, a la Kanye or M.I.A. But let’s not punish this album for what it never tried to be. This album is a cheerful throwback, all ’80s neon and Bassment Party rap reminiscent of last year’s big shit The Cool Kids. This album is a more successful Santigold, because I am certain that no one, other than the critics who ludicrously endorsed her, actually listened to that album. I think people will listen to and enjoy Kid Sister–she’s goofy, she’s pretty, she raps about Payless and Bath & Body works (that is to say, she is humble), and she has some good producers. This album also taught me a couple things about dance genres, and though the experts might scoff, dudes, I don’t know what kind of manic tom makes good juke, and if I hear some distortion that reminds me of MSTRKRFT, I will be happy. Hence Kid Sister sounds like fun dance music to me.

Not all songs are solid gold, but I would say that 50% of the album is great, including “Right Hand Hi,” “Life on TV,” “Control,” “Get Fresh,” and “Switch Board.”

So check it out and stop hatin. And for god’s sake, Pfork, don’t say Sister’s rhymes remind you of “actors in teen movies rapping for laughs.” Maybe it’s cuz you haven’t heard a woman rapping and having fun at the same time… like, ever.


Annie Stops, Then Stops Stopping

Annie Dont Stop
I'm so magical, I got electronic stuff free flowing from my hands

Remember Annie?!? I do. I have held a flame in my heart for her since “Heartbeat” in 2005. It was my crossover dance hit, the song that ripped me from my rocking origins and launched me into new electronic territory. “Heartbeat” spoke to me in a way that Kylie’s coyness never did; it felt startlingly first-person and personal, and seemed to sum up those zany nights in a cold European club, when the sweat and the booze and the beat make it seem like you’ve found true love in your dancing partner. JK! I’ve never had those nights, but I feel that I have, via that song.

I have listened to that song hundreds of times over the years, and the heartbeat bassline never ceased to stir my heartstrings. Then, once, when I had access to a stereo with four speakers, I heard a new layer previously unknown to me–that of the optimistic, popping, upward guitar lick. It renewed my love of that song for another two years.

Last year, Don’t Stop leaked and my then-bf got it for me from the Internetz, since, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t know and don’t care to learn how to get things for free from the Internetz.  I was awful disappointed with the album, with the exception of “Song Reminds Me of You,” which, on my ripped version, was the last song. My itunes marks it as the 2nd most listened to song (next to Jay-Z’s “I Know”). I wondered why Annie couldn’t have made a few more songs like that one.

“Song Reminds Me of You” is a song about love lost and embittered, and then has that extra meta “song about a song and songwriter writing songs” element. Annie is often chided for being girlish and childish or whatever, but this common criticism ignores her many wonderful lyrical pop devices; her song concepts are calculated and smart, y’all. “Heartbeat” is about a stirring beat and is a stirring beat; the same goes for “Song Reminds Me of You,” which is about a third party hearing a song he wrote for someone he’s no longer with and is also a song about that same dude, a person she no longer is with. DEEP, DUDE.

Annie’s real version of Don’t Stop allegedly comes out November 17th. Let’s hope this time she chooses to nevergonnadontstop (shout out to partymoose).

Dizzee Rascal: Don’t Call Him Rude Boy

This is like a picture of Che Guevara wearing a Che Guevara shirt, except it's Dizzee Rascal wearing a Dizzee Rascal shirt.
This is like a picture of Che Guevara wearing a Che Guevara shirt, except it's Dizzee Rascal wearing a Dizzee Rascal shirt.

Dizzee Rascal will probably never make more than a few ripples on this (American) side of the pond, but in the UK, he’s kinda like a big deal. He won the Mercury in 2003 and hasn’t paused since. The Guardian recently called him “Britain’s first urban superstar.”

Uh, is urban a codeword for black? Race politics in other countries are sometimes beyond me. Maybe I see things that aren’t there; maybe urban is simply an appropriate descriptor for grime. But I’m not sure.

I was hooked at “Fix Up, Look Sharp.” Though it’s embarrassing to admit, I liked Dizzee Rascal and The Streets before I liked Jay-Z or NaS. I care not divulge all the particulars concerning why that might have been, but I will hint that it might have had something to do with shameless anglophilia.

Last month in the UK, Dizzee’s fourth album Tongue N’ Cheek was released. I’ve been obsessed with “Dance Wiv Me,” the album’s first single, since I heard it bumpin’ in a Forever 21 last spring. Yeah, I know.

Last week I heard “Bonkers,” which is indeed pretty bonkers, as heavily distorted guitars (chainsaws!?!?) assault your ears in much the same way they would on a Justice track.

I am really bad at knowing how to download things on the Internet, and I also don’t like buying music from virtual stores, so how am I going to get to hear this entire album? It promises to be Dizzee’s most dance-friendly, which suits me just fine. Any tips?

In Dizzee related news, a one time collaborator/all-time crazy-town electro duo Basement Jaxx are coming to Chicago on November 6th! They will be playing only 6 blocks from my house, and the show costs a third of what Kylie’s show recently cost at the same venue. See you there?