Music of the Sun (Def Jam, 2005)
A Girl Like Me (Def Jam, 2006)
Good Girl Gone Bad/Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded (Def Jam, 2007)
Rated R (Def Jam, 2009)
When she was discovered in her native Barbados at fifteen, Rihanna seemed like a good investment—Beyonce with a deeper voice and Caribbean accent. Jay-Z signed the sixteen-year-old to Def Jam, and she soon ascended to the pop aristocracy, working with top-rank writers and producers from the hip-hop and R&B world. Her debut, Music of the Sun, mostly written and produced by the team of Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken, is an inoffensive, thoroughly generic teen-pop record with a few Caribbean touches in its arrangements and one likeable dance single, "Pon de Replay." Her swiftly recorded follow-up A Girl Like Me featured three massive hits that expanded her range—"S.O.S." (a variation on Soft Cell's version of "Tainted Love"), "Unfaithful" (a woe-is-me infidelity ballad), and "Break It Off" (a dancehall-ish duet with Sean Paul)—as well as a lot of tedious filler.
Re-released a year into its run with three more songs (including the grandly contemptuous kiss-off "Take a Bow") and the subtitle "Reloaded," Good Girl ended up yielding seven major hits. The biggest was the summer wonder "Umbrella," featuring both an introductory verse by Jay-Z and a video in which Rihanna appeared naked and covered in silver paint. Interestingly, most of its singles featured some kind of rock signifier: the live-and-loud drums of "Umbrella," the riff from New Order's "Blue Monday" underscoring Rogers and Sturken's "Shut Up and Drive," the chilly industrial overtones of "Disturbia." Even the Ne-Yo duet "Hate That I Love You" is built on modern-rock acoustic strumming.
It's very hard not to hear Rated R as the work of somebody who's just gotten out of an abusive relationship, which Rihanna had: Her performance at 2009's Grammys was cancelled after her then-boyfriend Chris Brown assaulted her, and most of these songs respond to that relationship and its end in one way or another. There aren't a lot of good-time dancefloor moments here—the album is full of solemn minor-key synthesizers, snarling rock guitars, declarations of steely invulnerability, evocations of bloody violence and lines like "don't talk to me like I'm stupid." "Hard" is brusquely effective, though sometimes her armor often gets in the way of her flexibility.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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