After comparing last year’s Rated R to Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope, Eric Henderson ended his review of the album by expressing hopes that Rihanna wouldn’t follow up with something like All for You. At first glance, it appears that his fears were justified: Like Janet’s last hit album, Loud is a decided step away from its über-personal, melodrama-drenched predecessor.
While that may disappoint critics like Eric and I, however, it’s probably smart business. Lead single “Only Girl (In the World)” finds New York production duo Stargate co-opting David Guetta’s inexplicably popular Eurotrash sound pretty effectively, but that song eschews the subtle West Indian flavor with which Rihanna and company have smartly imbued the rest of the album. The singer hasn’t embraced—or exploited, depending on how you want to look at it—her Caribbean roots this much since her debut, and after hearing the entire album, her “loud” red hair and floral-pattern dresses make that much more sense.
That’s not to say there aren’t traces of the R-rated Rihanna here. The album opens with an ode to S&M that would make various parts of Janet’s body perk up, and the inclusion of a new version of “Love the Way You Lie” shows that Rihanna isn’t completely ready to put her much-publicized bout with domestic abuse behind her. The album’s biggest highlight is “Man Down,” a full-fledged reggae tune co-written by fellow Barbadan Shontelle Layne about a woman who shoots a man (her abusive boyfriend? Her abusive pimp? Or maybe she’s simply the abuser). Either way, Rihanna sounds surprisingly agile in this genre and it’s one of her finest, most confident vocal performances to date.
In the end, Loud really isn’t Rihanna’s All for You, but like Janet, Rihanna has always had trouble fitting into one genre (she has largely flip-flopped between dance, pop, and R&B, crossing over in a big way but meeting resistance in the urban market—a problem Janet would no doubt encounter if she were starting out today too), and for better or worse, Rihanna continues to stylistically branch out on Loud. “California King Bed” is a slushy acoustic ballad whose clever metaphor is all but suffocated beneath the song’s cheesy production choices, and the same producers fill “Cheers (Drink to That)” with a sample of Avril Lavigne’s yelp, an odd choice consdering Rihanna has contributed at least a couple more famous vocal tics of her own to the pop lexicon.