This week marks the release of recording artist Rihanna (Robyn Rihanna Fenty)’s sixth studio album, Talk That Talk. Originally from Barbados, the 23-year-old has won four Grammys and sold over 20 million albums in just seven years. Her successes have placed her in the arena of superstars like Madonna and Michael Jackson – among the ranks of the best selling artists in modern history.
Talk That Talk stands as one of Rihanna’s most musically dynamic works. From the electric metal of “Roc Me Out” to the dancehall rhythms of “You Da One,” many scenes will find something to dance to. Calvin Harris and DJ Luke spin their LPs for the house and electronic-club kids in “We Found Love” and “Where Have You Been,” while Jay-Z sends some love to fans of hip-hop in the album’s title track “Talk That Talk.” Appealing to such a wide audience is one of the album’s strengths, and reveals how much of a collaborative effort went into producing it.
While Talk That Talk builds on the hot beats of Rihanna’s previous album Loud (2010), she combines this with darker subject matter, often in association with another previous work, Rated R (2009). She sings about love in nearly every track, but not as it’s typically portrayed. From the beginning of the album, Rihanna portrays love as obsessional, objectifying and opportunistic. She intentionally stumbles over her words, like the syncopated dubsteb rhythms that mark her beat. This gives the sense that her feelings of love push her off balance, as she references in the track “Drunk On Love.”
By layering heavy content with superficially sweet imagery, Rihanna also creates an atmosphere of understatement that feels deeply unsettling. The track “Birthday Cake” is a good example. Using sugary euphemisms, she mocks the listener for wanting to “blow [the] candles out” on her “cake.” But first-things-first, Rihanna says, “I’mma make you my bitch.”
Like that lyric suggests, Rihanna owns her sexuality throughout the album. She often places herself in a position of dominance and control.
The album’s sexiest song, “Red Lipstick,” is unfortunately only available on the deluxe edition of Talk That Talk, but it is worth the extra cost. She exhibits her sex partner, getting off on his display: “Red lipstick, all on the paper / Let me take a hit while you sit and rush/ Go hate, talk shit, it’s all on the paper / Let me grab my tit while you sit on top/ Do you right here while the whole world’s watching / All up in my mental, gotta get up in my physical.”
Rihanna reinforces her authority by adopting masculinized visions of female sexuality. Her costumes echo American pop icons as far back as Rosie the Riveter. But Rihanna also steals power from longstanding images of the femme fatale and hypersexualized temptress. Both of these strategies allow her to break free from trite, pop formulas that often dichotomize women as either happy in their new romances or angry after their breakups. Instead, Rihanna portrays love itself as twisted. And for the most part, she pulls it off.
The album suffers from tracks like “We All Want Love.” Within the carnality that saturates the rest of Talk That Talk, Rihanna singing, “We just want somebody / We all wanna be somebody’s one and only / We all wanna be warm when it’s cold / Yeah yeah yeah,” feels jarring and out of character. For better and worse, subtlety is not what this album does best.
4 out of 5 stars.