c.2010 New York Times News Service
It's back to business as usual - flirting, titillating, indulging, romancing - for Rihanna on her fifth album, "Loud." She's resuming her persona as the party girl with the glint of danger.
Rihanna's 2009 "Rated R," on which she shared some songwriting credit, followed the domestic violence inflicted by Chris Brown with hefty, portentous songs that insisted on her toughness and pride. For most of "Loud" she keeps trauma at a distance. The songs, all written for her, are about hookups, breakups and adult pleasures, and they are set in the synthetic virtual world of radio-ready pop. Rihanna is clearly aware of competition from Lady Gaga, the Black Eyed Peas and Kesha, and she's keeping pace. Even through Auto-Tune, her voice holds its tangy individuality.
"Loud" proffers risque good times from the beginning. The album starts with "S&M," a bouncy, enthusiastic endorsement of "chains and whips" that rides a four-on-the-floor club beat (and later the hook from the Cure's "Let's Go to Bed"). The arena-rock-paced "Cheers (Drink to That)," with a sampled Avril Lavigne cheering, "Yeah! Yeah!," is calculated for barroom sing-alongs.
Rihanna shares the mechanized, chattering beat of "Raining Men" with Nicki Minaj, singing and rapping about an endless supply of available men. Her own moans and heavy breathing surround her in the slow, torrid buildup of "Skin." And she plays up her West Indian accent in the electro-reggae of "Man Down," about shooting a lover in a moment of passion, and in "What's My Name," in which she responds wholeheartedly to come-ons from Drake.
The beat and the expertise persist through rougher emotional terrain. "Complicated," a Tricky Stewart song about a romance full of mood swings, has Rihanna trumpeting her frustrations to the dance floor, over synthesizer beats ricocheting through space, a pumping house beat and crackling outbursts of percussion. The Polow Da Don production of "Fading" strategizes with long and short elements - sustained choruses and staccato verses, edgeless keyboard chords and notes that are suddenly truncated - to capture the ambivalence of a failing romance.
"Loud" works the pop gizmos as neatly as any album this year, maintaining the Rihanna brand. But the album has a hermetic, cool calculation until it gets to "Love the Way You Lie (Part II)," her take on the tortured hit she shared with Eminem. "It's sick that all these battles are what keeps me satisfied," she sings. A lone piano humanizes her first vocals, and she rides the ascending power ballad to a pained resolve; then Eminem delivers new verses in a spiraling rage. It's purely theatrical, but it's also, for a moment, raw.
- JON PARELES
"Live It Up"
What we know of Lee DeWyze, winner of the most recent season of "American Idol," we know from TV: the reluctance; the inarticulate, doughy brawn; the penchant for hiding in plain sight until a song's chorus, when he'd open his raspy mouth wide, and howl, often majestically. We know enough about DeWyze to know that "Live It Up," his major-label debut, is in no way a Lee DeWyze album. Not just because of the pair of small-label records he released before "Idol," which were rough and rocky and, sure, a little clumsy, and maybe betrayed an affection for the work of Adam Duritz. But because if tasked with singing most of the songs on this surprisingly pleasant, improbably innocuous album during his time on the show, DeWyze almost certainly wouldn't have made it to the end.
Surely he did not go on "Idol" so he could sing a song like the title track, with its aw-shucks flirtiness that he wears uncomfortably. The old DeWyze would have probably resented performing "Weightless," a song that Jason Mraz would doubtless happily caress. On "Beautiful Like You" DeWyze sounds like an inebriated Ryan Tedder, of OneRepublic, a singer with maybe one-third his range, vocal and emotional - which is to say pretty small. All DeWyze wants to do is overwhelm melodies, as he does on "Me and My Jealousy," where he doubles the decibels at the hook, just as he did so often on "Idol."
That the flawlessly mechanical production duo Espionage talked him out of this tendency on its pair of songs, "It's Gotta Be Love" and "Stay Here," is impressive. But those songs, pretty as they are, don't match their singer. Only the album's last track, "A Song About Love," feels true. His voice is serrate, his mood is foul, and the song is sturdy enough to stand up to both. It's the sound of DeWyze's then and now finally colliding.
- JON CARAMANICA