Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rihanna -- Rated R

Rated R

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: "Rated R" should continue Rihanna's streak of smash hit singles.

Cons: Her reliance on song-writers leaves the album's intended message vague and unclear.

Bottom Line: Rihanna rebounds from personal struggles to remain one of the biggest stars in music.

Recommended Tracks:

Hard (ft. Jeezy)

Fire Bomb

There is no way to review Rihanna's new album Rated R without mentioning Chris Brown. After what happened earlier this year, their relationship is the proverbial elephant in the room.

The lead single "Russian Roulette" ("Know that I must pass this test / So I just pull the trigger") and its dark metaphor for love? The anthemic songs about how great she is on her own and the reflective ballads about love that every R&B album has? While she rarely explicits mentions their relationship, almost everything about Rated R could be plausibly be interpreted to be about Brown in some way.

It's unfortunate, because Rated R should be judged on its own merits. Rihanna has become one of the most consistent hit-makers in pop music, and this album continues that trend. Five or six songs could easily be top 10 singles -- from the Jeezy- and Slash-assisted club smashes ("Hard" and "Rockstar 101" respectively) to the slower ballads ("Fire Bomb" and "Te Amo") and songs that ably mix both styles ("Photographs" and "Wait Your Turn").

Almost every one of the album's 12 songs has a strong, memorable and catchy chorus. A superstar group of producers and songwriters -- headlined by StarGate, the team behind "So Sick" and "Unfaithful" -- give Rihanna a varied musical backdrop (from slow pianos to R&B-tinged guitars and electronic club music) that still fits together cohesively. This allows Rihanna to stretch herself as a singer like she never has before.

Rated R should only further establish Rihanna as one of music's pre-eminent superstars. And as for Chris Brown, maybe that's the only message she needs to send -- success is still the best revenge.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Timbaland -- Shock Value II

Shock Value 2

Rating: 5/5 stars

Pros: One of the best producers in the last 20 years creates a futuristic new sound combining R&B, rock, rap and pop.

Cons: He doesn't have much on his mind besides partying and girls.

Bottom Line: Timbaland's long-awaited musical masterpiece.

Recommended Tracks:

Marching On (ft. One Republic)

Tomorrow in a Bottle (ft. Chad Kroeger and Sebastian)

Before the Shock Value series, Timbaland never had a signature CD as a solo artist, unlike fellow superstar producers like Dr. Dre and Kanye West. Producers can showcase their talent in that setting, free to unleash their creative id without compromise and look for inspiration in unlikely places. Shock Value II is the CD Timbaland has been building his entire career toward, the work of a great musician at the top of his game.

After more than a decade of consistent success, he doesn't need to justify his musical decisions. Shock Value II reflects that -- featuring everyone from Daughtry and Chad Kroeger to Miley Cyrus, the Fray, Drake and Justin Timberlake. Timbaland tweaks the music for each artist but keeps a consistent sound -- a futuristic mash-up of R&B, rock, pop and rap destined to be copied endlessly.

And with such a diverse and talented guest-list, the album feels like a compilation CD of the year's biggest hits. Nearly every song could conceivably be released as a single; in theory he could have a big hit in four different genres -- rap ("Say Something"), rock ("Marching On or "Long Way Down"), pop ("Undertow" or "Lose Control" ) and R&B ("Carry Out").

For the most part, each song celebrates a different aspect of how great he (and his guests) are. Drake pokes fun at girls from his past ("I should wanna go back to the one I started with / But I'm addicted to this life it's gonna be hard to quit") while Daughtry reminisces on his meteoric ascent ("I hear it's such a long way down / And the climb back up is something I can do without").

Timbaland serves as a unifying force, as a DJ introducing each act while occasionally delivering a rap verse. He's nowhere near as talented on the mic as Dre and Kanye, but he doesn't detract from the music. He doesn't have much to say: "It you assume my life is wonderful, then y'all right" is about as introspective as he gets on Shock Value II. It's an album designed to play from start to finish at a house party, and it will many times over the next few months.