Though only six years into her music career and 23 years into her life, Rihanna tallied off her 20th Top 10 hit with her single "We Found Love" last month. In doing so, she wrested a record away from Madonna, though the fully qualified feat "most Top 10 singles from a solo artist in the shortest period of time" confirms only what every person with a working radio already knows: There's no escaping Rihanna. This is the third November in as many years to see a new Rihanna album, and like both Rated R and Loud before it, Talk That Talk is an efficient singles vehicle, though one so disposable it only merits a physical incarnation so it can be stuffed under Christmas trees as part of the industry's annual fourth-quarter cash-grab.
In Talk That Talk's defense, it at least sounds disposable by design. Rihanna is a modelesque multimillionaire who qualifies as an A-lister among fans of pop, rap, and dance music: Frivolity should be her birthright, but her disastrous relationship with Chris Brown and, more significantly, her awkward, extended attempt to translate her trauma into an edgier musical persona, hobbled her last couple of albums with unconvincing attempts at psycho-sexual unburdening. In that respect, Loud was certainly an improvement over its predecessor, but songs like "Man Down," "Skin," and "S&M" ensured that the tag cloud of violence, sex, and violent sex wouldn't dissipate before the singer had successfully rebranded herself. Talk That Talk follows in that trajectory, announcing that pop's ice queen has completed her thawing process and is ready to love again (we know this because four of the album's songs have "love" in the title). Rihanna exchanges bondage gear for "Birthday Cake," and where "Cheers (Drink to That)" found her out partying until last call, this time she'd rather get "Drunk on Love."
The whole narrative is almost impossible to buy, mostly because Rihanna doesn't succeed at showing the gushing, girlish heart that's supposedly been beating beneath her frigid exterior this whole time. It's worth remembering that she didn't go all frosty-freaky just for the purposes of her post-Brown confessions: Rihanna had been tagged with the ice-queen label as early as Good Girl Gone Bad, owing less to the presence of a distinct persona than to the total lack of one. In that context, "icy" essentially meant "vacant," and vacant is what Rihanna remains even as she attempts to infuse her dance confections with a bit of warm blood. As always, Rihanna is little more than a cipher for multiplatinum producers' committee, less a singer than a delivery system for hooks and beats.
It's to her great detriment, then, that her handlers didn't bring any especially great material to the table. Stargate, the production duo responsible for nearly all of Rihanna's best singles and all three of Loud's biggest hits, contributes three fairly generic tracks, the best of which, "Drunk on Love," allows its xx-sampled beat to do all of the heavy lifting. At the very least, you expect an album like this to come front-loaded with potential singles, but the opening trio consists of two Dr. Luke productions, "You Da One," this album's obligatory reminder of Rihanna's Caribbean heritage, and "Where Have You Been," a boring, dubstep-normalizing dance number reminiscent of LMFAO, plus "We Found Love." And that's about as exciting as the album gets. The succeeding portions of the album are mostly notable for how desperately they try to one-up each other at raunchy, instructional sex talk. On "Cockiness (Love It)," Rihanna invites you to "suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion," while on The-Dream's ghastly, inexplicably truncated "Birthday Cake" she'd rather have you licking her icing and blowing out her candles. Apparently out of metaphors by the time "Watch n' Learn" comes around, Rihanna settles for literalism: bed, couch, floor, "oh, baby, baby, just like that."
It's hard to imagine anything else on Talk That Talk matching the success of "We Found Love," but, then again, she's taken worse material to the Top 10. And even if she doesn't, she'll still be able to maintain her ubiquity through her recent collaborations with Coldplay and Drake. Judged purely on chart presence, Rihanna now competes with the all-time greats of diva-dom. She's already tied with Whitney Houston for most #1 singles, with only Madonna and Mariah ranking ahead of her for female solo artists. It's sort of baffling to think of Rihanna in that company. As a vocalist, she's Madge-tier on a good day, while comparisons to Whitney and Mariah aren't even worth making. And while her rotating roulette of looks and sounds follows something of the career template that Madonna established, her "reinventions" are neither as interesting as the Queen of Pop's nor do they disclose any personal, curatorial investment on the singer's part.
Though she's been fortunate enough to receive infinitely better and edgier material, Rihanna is really no different from Britney Spears, functioning mostly as a brand name to unify the disparate work of a few A-list songwriting teams. The similarities are even more obvious now that Rihanna has recruited frequent Spears collaborators like Dr. Luke, her frothier sound almost definitely deployed here to keep the pop tiara safe from the clutches of Katy Perry. Thus far, Rihanna has fared much better with critics than Perry or Spears, but if the only question is who you want performing your Stargate songs, I'm not sure the distinction is worth debating. Either way, Talk That Talk is pretty easily the worst Rihanna album yet, though I wouldn't be surprised to see her break that record next November.