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Review: Rihanna Seesaws Between Romance and Raunch in ‘Talk That Talk’

Rihanna alternates between would-be filth and deep feelings on her new album, but she’s more convincing at sex talk than real talk

The advance word on Rihanna’s new album, “Talk That Talk,” was that it’d be full of dirty talk — as in stark-raving smutty. That turns out to have been an overstatement: Filth-ophilia really only accounts for about a third of the record.

But, um, it's a memorable third. “I want you to be my sex slave,” she sings in “Cockiness.” “I can be your dominatrix… She may be the queen of hearts, but I’m gonna be the queen of your body parts.” No surprise, that, coming from the woman who already had a hit off her last album called “S&M.”

She gets to the point much faster in the 1 minute and 18 seconds of “Birthday Cake,” which barrels through a set of not-quite-double entendres about licking and biting baked goods before America’s sweetheart just cuts to the chase by declaring, “I want to f— you right now.”

How does she want to? Let her count the ways! “On the bed, on the floor, on the couch…,” she sings, acting as a sort of erotic location scout on “Watch N Learn” — although this number may be less about traditional sexual congress than the more advanced lessons that a man requires to physically satisfy a woman. “If you learn how," sings Rihanna, the demanding tutor, "I’ll stay."

But don't take away the impression that the album is strictly about unbridled carnality. These decidedly raunchy numbers are bookended by sweet songs about how Rihanna needs to find love, just like everybody else.

Having these two sides to balance ought to make her more interesting — in theory. But if there’s anything Rihanna’s not about, it’s complexity. Her songs are about either heart-breaking love or couch-busting sex… but never both, because the guys who write her songs have no vested interest in making that twain meet.

Regardless which side of the romance/raunch divide you fall on, you might agree that the salacious songs on "Talk That Talk" beat the sensitive ones hands-down. That’s partly because her producer-writers seem more stimulated by sprucing up bedroom romps with interesting electronic textures than they are in rote R&B/rock power ballads.

And it's partly because Rihanna's affectless voice is better suited to conveying "naughty" than the greater demands of nice.

Early in the album, she does come up with a couple of key singles that manage to be fun and more or less family-friendly at the same time. On the Dr. Luke-co-produced “You Da One,” Rihanna sings “I’m so happy that you came in my li-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ife” with the same staccato, unmelismatic quality that made “Umbrella-ella-ella” hold water. She's boosted by a nifty arrangement that's halfway like her native neo-reggae before the beat kicks in with a cool kind of lurching electronica.

Also irresistible is “We Found Love,” which offers a tender sentiment (“We found love in a hopeless place”) that’s all but negated by the gimmicky electronic crescendos that frequently interrupt the tune. These are moments tailor-made to prompt the DJ to spin the disco ball a little faster. But there’s no hopeless place quite like the dance floor, right?

After these early highlights, though, you mostly have  your pick between the lust songs, which are ludicrously crude but cleverly crafted, and the love songs, which might be more palatable but bear no personal stamp.

One positive thing you can say for sure about the album is that it's less dark and more high-spirited than the frequently ominous "Rated R" and "Loud." The club isn't a bad place to encounter her, and the album's at its musical best when it sticks to dance music. But with Rihanna's status as an icon and magnet for controversy, "fun" will always play second fiddle to what fans want to project onto her.

Many critical essays have and will be written on how Rihanna is presenting herself as a feminist role model in the wake of the Chris Brown scandal. Her last three albums, issued quickly and annually, have gotten increasingly sexually explicit and seem designed to present her as someone who’s in control, not a victim. You can hardly accuse her of overplaying the vulnerability card to pander to post-beating public sentiment.

But if we're not going to get a vulnerable Rihanna, we might want a Rihanna whose sexual aggression is at least thought-out and personal, not just the product of a bunch of very smart guys crafting her songs and image.

Unfortunately, diving into “Talk That Talk” (or Rihanna’s not terribly interesting interviews and tweets), you’ll be hard-pressed to find too much self-directed depth to her rapidly emergent dominatrix side… unless you’re an overreaching rock critic. And/or really, really horny.