Last year, as singer Chris Brown began serving his probation and community service, Rihanna went into the studio to try and express how she felt as the victim of the decade's highest-profile domestic abuse case. The result, "Rated R," was occasionally powerful and moving, if a wee bit dreary. Where would she go from there? Back to the party, apparently. Her fifth outing, "Loud," out Tuesday, returns Rihanna to the spirited, Caribbean-spiced dance-pop that made her such a breakout star in the first place.
This time, though, the celebratory atmosphere of Rihanna's sassy new jams are seasoned with some of the darker flavors from "Rated R." She's definitely on the rebound and looking for a hookup, but desire in Riri's world is a mash-up of pain and pleasure -- emotions she rarely fails to physicalize. She collaborated with Eminem this summer on the controversial "Love the Way You Lie," a song and hotly debated video conflating wild passion with crazed assault. She returns to this on "Loud" with "Love the Way You Lie (Part II)," an extension of the melody and the arson metaphor, in which Eminem reappears with more histrionic rapping about hating her, loving her, hitting her and hugging her. It's an unnecessary sequel that further muddies the issue: Is this a social statement, or merely an artistic expression about some truly troubled and confused people?
On the rest of "Loud," Rihanna gets plenty busy, but she writes herself into control of each situation, calling all the shots. She opens with "S&M" and a new stream of R-rated boasts ("I may be bad / but I'm perfectly good at it ... chains and whips excite me"). For the next track, "What's My Name?," she and panting duet partner Drake steam the recording studio windows as he raps a helpless play-by-play ("Only thing we've got on is the radio"). In "Raining Men" -- not the Weather Girls original, though it's alluded to -- she and Nicki Minaj are singin' in the downpour of dudes, who are "falling like the rain / so we are running out" (but "ladies don't worry they got plenty more"). By "Skin," the art of her seduction is oh-so slow and merciless. She teases her man, then lets him at her ("You've waited long enough") before instructing, "Don't hold back / you know I like it rough."
But the less salacious songs have the most volume on "Loud." The acoustic strums of "California King Bed" build to a cinematic, Diane Warren-sized breakup chorus. The Stargate-produced "Only Girl (In the World)" wound up the first single because of its carbonated, club-ready synths, but the best song here is "Cheers (Drink to That)," a wise, world-weary paean from a gal at the bar who's seen some stuff, has moved on and wants to buy everybody a round of fruity shots. "Don't let the bastards get you down ... there's a party at the bar," she sings, before opining, "Life's too short to be sitting around miserable / People gonna talk whether you're doing bad or good." Rihanna does a little of both and doesn't try to hide the former. That she's more honest about that makes her music considerably more interesting than the similar dance-pop from the coy Katy Perry and the emotionally oppressive Lady Gaga.