When Rihanna jumped onto the scene with “Pon De Replay” five years ago, I thought she would be jumping off the scene just as quickly (that song still gives me the bad shivers). Thank God I’m not an A&R guy, I guess. Flash forward five years and Rihanna is one of the biggest pop stars in the world-and she (or the people around her) has managed to figure out how to make good records, too! Although her albums are more singles collections than cohesive statements, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who makes better Top 40 radio fodder.

Last year’s “Rated R” got excellent reviews, but back when it first came out, I wasn’t sure how much of my personal like for the CD was based on enjoyment of the music vs. sympathy for Rihanna’s very public beating at the hands of then-boyfriend Chris Brown. It could be argued that the unfortunate incident was exploited by Rihanna and her record company for publicity purposes. However, an artist’s mission is to channel their experience into their music, and based on the writing credits Ri-Ri racked up on “Rated R”, I think she’s worth giving up the benefit of the doubt. Besides, a year after the album’s release and nearly two years after the incident, the music still sounds good.

So I kinda feel like “Loud”, Rihanna’s fifth and latest album, is kind of a step back. Maybe the experience of writing songs so personal to her was a little too exhausting, or maybe the label just wanted a hit record without so much psychodrama. Whatever led to the creation of “Loud”, the fact of the matter is that it’s way more upbeat-lyrically and production-wise-than “Rated R” was, and it’s a markedly less personal record. Flipping through the liner notes, I don’t see a single writing credit for Rihanna. Kinda reminds me of when Janet Jackson forgot she was a songwriter on “Discipline”.

That’s where the comparison ends though. Unlike Janet’s last effort, which found the aging superstar trying to fit into material about 20 years too small, most of the songs on “Loud” sound tailor-made for Rihanna. Most of the songs were written and produced by the Stargate production team, who have collaborated with Ri-Ri almost since the beginning. They also have a knack for being on the pulse of what’s going on as far as current musical trends while remembering that melodies and lyrics make great songs. So what you end up with is an album of songs that sound fine on Top 40 radio but are significantly easier to enjoy than, say, Ke$ha or The Black Eyed Peas.

“Loud” is a largely uptempo affair, with the most downbeat affair, “Fading”, turning out to be one of the album’s best tracks. The somewhat unfortunate hyper-sexualization of Rihanna continues with songs like the mediocre album opener “S&M”, the intensely seductive (and relatively tasteful) “Skin” and the fun “What’s My Name?”, on which guest rapper Drake steals the show. Interestingly, while the sexual content of her material is still high, the outright profanity that marked “Rated R” (and made it a chore to listen to at times) is dialed WAY back.

There’s also the reggae-inflected “Man Down” (another one of my favorites-Rihanna always gets me when she leans heavily on her Bajan accent…this track is very Grace Jones meets Lady Saw) and, on the opposite side of the spectrum, the soaring pop/rock track “California King Bed”. Despite somewhat shaky live performances (a given when you consider the fact that her performances are choreography-heavy), Rihanna sounds in much better voice than ever, and you can’t pin all of that on technology. The girl can belt when she wants.

In terms of straight-up Top 40 dance-pop, Rihanna’s doing it better than just about any artist not named Lady GaGa right now. While “Loud” may not have the same amount of gravitas that “Rated R” had, it’s still pretty solid as far as mindless pop music goes, and Rihanna’s personality (and voice) is unique enough that it doesn’t fade into the typical abyss of anonymity that many pop singers find themselves in.

Grade: B

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