Rihanna is the preeminent singles artist of the Age of R&B for three main reasons: she's criminally beautiful and therefore effortlessly marketable, she possesses the unique talent of being able to tailor her powerful voice to whatever genre she might be working in on a given track, and her musical collaborators are among the most talented songwriters and producers in the world, so infallible in their wisdom that virtually every single Rihanna releases is structurally flawless and infectiously catchy. However, given the stubbornly protracted death of the LP, singles artists such as Rihanna are still obligated to release long, boring albums for purely promotional purposes, albums which are then harshly judged against the standards of seminal masterpieces of Album Rock's long forgotten heyday by critics and discriminating fans alike, despite the fact that R&B has always been a singles-based genre and has produced very few universally acclaimed albums. Intense scrutiny of a release such as Loud, Rihanna's fifth in five years, reveals that the artist and her production team cannot "accidentally" churn out great album tracks, that their chart domination is clearly the result of an intensely concerted effort towards crafting easily digestible three minute "units" of pure pop efficacy, and that a diffusion of their talents, in the form of a forty-six minute album, sometimes results in unutterably banal filler material.

The first third of Loud plays like a greatest hits compilation: "S&M" and lead single "What's My Name," both produced by Norwegian mega-hitmakers Stargate, are two of strongest tracks of Rihanna's career thus far. The former is a dense, multi-layered and deceptively simple—that is, transparently complex—composition containing no bass line and which, though it's built upon a rudimentary and highly familiar synthesizer riff, contains enough hooks for three ABBA songs and finds Stargate utilizing an innovative technique of alternating between faintly audible, constantly evolving live drum patterns and thunderous programmed electro-beats. The latter, which features a strategically placed Drake, is punctuated by some tasteful vintage vocoder effects and provides Rihanna with yet another indelible vocal hook based around nonsense syllables. "Cheers (Drink To That)" features an interpolation of Avril Lavigne's "I'm With You" but is infinitely superior, perhaps because it cribs the only memorable aspect of that song. "Fading," though slightly less impressive than the preceding three, is tightly constructed and constitutes something of a minor anthem.

But then, perhaps intentionally, we embark on a long stretch of duds—"Only Girl (In the World)" and the "singer/songwriter-ish" "California King Bed" feel ill-conceived and ineffectual despite Rihanna's always energetic performances; the Reggae-inspired "Man Down" is decent at best and the headache-inducing "Raining Men" loosely and clumsily weaves together disparate melodic elements and doesn't really go anywhere, though it does feature a memorable appearance by the burgeoning Nicki Minaj. It may be to the advantage of Rihanna and her producers, managers and handlers that only a few tracks from each album leave a lasting impression upon the listening public, especially given the unique structure of the recording industry in its present incarnation. If Rihanna releases only two or three singles from this album, then her record label can concentrate its promotional muscle upon two or three commercially viable units which will, in turn, render them all the more effective for the purposes of multimedia licensing. If the record label is—and they rarely aren’t—only willing to risk two or three major promotional pushes per quarter, then Rihanna's producers won't feel impelled to squander an additional eight potential "hits" if they won't be promoted—and they’re far too smart to not know which songs will be hits. On a contradictory note, "Only Girl (In the World)" is a poor choice for a second single, but they can't always be right.

"Complicated" and "Skin" are probably the worst tracks on the album but, fortunately, Loud is rounded out by a remake of the number one hit "Love the Way You Lie" with Eminem providing a brief but strong verse highly uncharacteristic of his recent output. The rock-ified remake works quite well, but it cannot save this ungainly turkey, though it is a righteous turkey. Why should artists waste their time on consistently entertaining albums if no one's going to shell out for them?There are quite a few memorable singles, you can just download those, can't you? Or don't download them, you'll probably hear them in a commercial or a film at some point. All in all, Loud makes a very strong case for the death of the album.


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