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The album begins at a low, the staccato vocal hooks of You Da One irritating rather than engaging. The squelchy, buzzing Where Have You Been is one of two productions from Calvin Harris – indicative of the mainstream dance scene of the UK and Europe making steady progression into the US RnB market. It’s an inoffensive pairing of building beats and sliced-and-diced vocals: to the right feet on the right dancefloor it’ll be manna itself manifested as an arms-in-the-air clubbing highlight. The second Harris hook-up, We Found Love, swells with fevered keys until it explodes, blinding neon like, all over its frenetic, repetitive chorus. It’s by-numbers fare from Harris, given edge by a quite deliberately provocative music video – just the 47 million YouTube views since mid-October.
A forgettable vocal from Jay-Z on the title-track foreshadows an awful exercise in quasi-erotic wordplay on Cockiness (Love It) and a wholly pointless minute-something in the company of star producer The-Dream, wasted on the boring profanities of Birthday Cake. At its halfway mark Talk That Talk takes a turn for the downbeat, the Beyoncé-style paean to perfect monogamy We All Want Love sitting awkwardly beside questionable sexual morals presented by earlier cuts. And Drunk on Love, for the second time in as many weeks release-wise after Rihanna’s guest slot on Drake’s Take Care, matches the Barbadian singer with a Jamie xx (Smith) production, the backing a slightly tweaked take on The xx’s Intro. It feels lazy, an impression that runs the course of this collection, which never convinces the listener that the artist on its cover is fully committed to the cause. On the commercial dubstep rumble of bonus track Red Lipstick, produced by Chase & Status, she sounds as if she phoned in her (again, drearily sexual) vocal five minutes after waking up.
In the recent past Rihanna exhibited a cool nonchalance; here, she’s trapped between playing the characters of a ruthless dominatrix and a docile sort willing to be putty in a boy’s hands. If the real Rihanna doesn’t stand up for her seventh LP, one has to wonder if she’ll ever find herself again.
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