The grim business of sifting through the wreckage of her abusive relationship with Chris Brown behind her, Rihanna literally and figuratively lets her hair down on Loud.
Her fifth studio album, arriving barely a year after the stormy, raw Rated R, is an 11-track paean to raucous, flirty nights out. Still, sinister undercurrents are evident beneath even the most carefree tracks, and the hard-edged opener, S&M, further demolishes whatever's left of Rihanna's pert pop image. She's become the fully rounded artist that Janet Jackson tried and failed to become, sweet with just enough of a hint of aberrant danger to make her immaculate, upscale songs stand apart from her contemporaries.
In many ways, Loud allows her to complete her transition from teen sensation to full-fledged adult artist, finishing the work that was actually begun with 2007's Good Girl Gone Bad. Loud is no different from either of its shadow-tinged antecedents, although it feels more finely calibrated than the often-unbridled tendencies of Rated R. As with her previous records, a glittering array of top-shelf producers (Polow da Don, Stargate, Alex da Kid) are lined up behind the mixing board.
Compared to the previous two albums, there's also more modulation here between balladeer Rihanna and party animal Rihanna. The Enya-sampling Fading is a smart spin on the done-to-death breakup anthem. Cheers (Drink to That) will probably find great favor in fraternities around the world.
And it's hardly surprising to see Love the Way You Lie (Part II), a track which drops pretty much everything but the original's chilling chorus, closing out the album. I just wish it had a legitimate reason for existence, aside from cashing in on Eminems popularity (he makes a cameo on a new verse here). Rihanna can be fierce, but this stab at emotional turbulence barely inflicts a scratch, compared to Eminems scorched-earth version.
Slight stumbles notwithstanding, can Rihanna sustain her current, impressive trajectory? Hard to say. All the great pop divas of the last 25 years have hit the wall sooner or later although given the adversity that she has weathered thus far, perhaps this good-time girl with a taste for darkness is better suited for stormy weather than her predecessors.