This week was a big one for major music releases. Some of the reviews are in:
"RATED R" (Def Jam)
Rihanna glares from the cover of "Rated R," concealing one eye with a hand. "Rated R," her fourth album, arrives nine months after Chris Brown, her boyfriend at the time, blackened her eye in a beating as they were driving back from a pre-Grammy party. The aftermath - his sentence to community service and a restraining order, her condemnation of domestic violence - has filled the airwaves and Internet.
"Rated R" doesn't specifically address those events, but it hardly ignores them. It's a bleak, adamant album that's both brave and skillful. Its love songs are about breakups and passion's destructive power, leaving listeners to read into them what they will. Meanwhile, in the power-chorded "Rockstar 101," Rihanna announces, "I never play the victim."
The songs on "Rated R" make the payoffs of being a lover and pop diva sound like compulsions rather than pleasures, with perseverance as the only reward. "I need it all: the money, the fame, the cars, the clothes," Rihanna sings in "Hard," a warning to would-be rivals that also insists, "No pain is forever - yup, you noticed."
Those lyrics boast, while the music, like much of the album, is closer to ominous goth-rock than R&B. In "Hard," which Rihanna wrote with Tricky and The-Dream - who were also behind her hit "Umbrella" - the backup is booming, tolling minor piano chords and an echoey cathedral choir of overdubbed Rihannas. That darker side has long been part of Rihanna's music. Her tangy voice holds a doleful undertone, adding depth even in dance ditties like "Pon de Replay," and making songs like last year's "Disturbia," about lurking insanity, more persuasive.
The glamour and S&M imagery of the "Disturbia" video continues with the packaging of "Rated R." Once again, Rihanna wraps herself in barbed wire, including a photo that seems to show puncture wounds. And the songs don't discover a lot of fun. The stark, suspenseful "Russian Roulette," by Ne-Yo and Chuck Harmony, is paced by a heartbeat, a ticking clock and Rihanna's fearful voice as she sings about playing the game, and it ends with a clear gunshot.
"I always put on the tough face," Rihanna told Diane Sawyer in her "20/20" interview, and she doesn't whine on "Rated R." In the multimedia whirlwind of a 21st-century pop career, Rihanna simply couldn't have made an album of lovey-dovey ballads or simple dance songs. "Rated R" does what divas do: leverage personal troubles into music. And with it, Rihanna never lets her sorrows overwhelm her musical craftsmanship or the determination behind it.
- Jon Pareles
"KRIS ALLEN" (19/Jive)
Kris Allen and "FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION" (19/RCA)
This year, for the first time in recent memory, "American Idol" had a national sensation on its hands. Its name was Adam Lambert, a wayward musical theater kid with a flexible, operatic voice who each week appeared to have just had an accident in a Sephora.
"Idol" also had a winner, Kris Allen, though to many that seemed like some sort of inconvenience: Allen was an unassuming puppy who nuzzled and yipped his way to the finale, offending no one. Lambert, his supporters argued, had vision and edge and therefore should have won - though, of course, they ultimately conceded, that must have been why he lost.
But Allen beat Lambert for a simple reason: He was a more palatable singer of songs that were popular. Which means that of the two, Lambert, the star, has more to prove on his debut album, "For Your Consideration."
And the labor put in to that end is almost audible: This is an overwrought, clunky, only sparingly entertaining record, constantly in argument with itself. Worse, "For Your Consideration" isn't an ambitious flop, it's a conservative one. Lambert doesn't reach for unconventional song structures or lyrical conceits or even, apart from a few places, for the astral high notes he made his trademark.
Instead he tends toward boxy digital stompers with overtones of Queen, and away from gender-specific pronouns. Lambert announced that he was gay soon after the "Idol" season concluded, but most of the come-ons on this album target a "you," as if something more detailed would have been a liability. The notable exception is "Fever," written by Lady Gaga, whose recent success proves that there's at least some tolerance for quasi-intelligent identity manipulation in the pop sphere, wiggle room that Lambert barely takes advantage of.
As on "Idol" his finest moments here are also the most straightforward. "Soaked," written by Matthew Bellamy of Muse, is a slow, luscious power ballad that could have been sung by Celine Dion. And on "Time for Miracles" Lambert suggests David Bowie's softer moments.
These are also the plainest lyrics on the album, but the fact that Lambert has always been most natural on songs that sound as if they were meant for Allen in no way persuaded Allen to attempt to infiltrate Lambert turf on his self-titled debut, which was released last week. It's a seamless continuation of his "Idol" run, full of gentle songs that he only rarely tries to rough up. The flattening of the recording process suits him well - unlike Lambert, who's constantly wondering how to dole out his raw vocal power, Allen's only concern is not getting swallowed outright. He succeeds somewhat on "Live Like We're Dying," a syrupy, apocalyptic number originally recorded by soft-rock droners the Script. And the producer Mike Elizondo, who's worked with Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple and, recently, Carrie Underwood, another "Idol" winner, shocks Allen out of his comfort zone with "Can't Stay Away," a zippy Maroon 5 impression, and a light country-inflected number, "Is It Over."
Allen is still accomplishing more with less, and he has made both the better album and the more apt one: It really shouldn't be much of a surprise.
- Jon Caramanica
"SHE WOLF" (Epic)
You shouldn't listen to "She Wolf," the first song on Shakira's album of the same name. You should flatten out its essence and put it on your fridge door, or some other graveyard of kitsch. A stilted piece of your-good-girl's-gonna-go-bad songwriting, it grasps at Eurodisco and robotic affects, promising hot blood and offering cold consomme. It's so undercooked and overwritten - with wan wolf howls and lines about being treated like a coffee machine in an office - that it reaches a special class of fascinating-awful.
Shakira was already sufficiently global, ruling Hispanophone pop charts and giving Anglos the persistent reggaeton-cumbia smash "Hips Don't Lie." The cultural patchwork of her music - she's Colombian, but it's no big deal to encounter Arabic music, mariachi and surf-rock in her songs - hasn't been her main draw; those are just handsome stripes covering her basic confidence. But she's less sure-footed on her new album, at least in its English-language version. (A Spanish language version, with different tracks, will surface within the coming months.)
"She Wolf" continues with "Did It Again," the first of four tracks produced by the Neptunes. And here comes the album's core sonic identity - credible, self-possessed, a whole lot more American than her records have sounded in the past, but kind of dull: hip-hop beats, parade and reggaeton grooves, minimal beats and whomps, a clarinet here and a Middle Eastern scale there among the stylized bleats and sighs. And her English-language lyrics continue with their subtle disasters: there's nothing technically wrong with "Why wait for later/I'm not a waiter" (from "Why Wait"), except that it makes you think of Shakira taking your appetizer orders.
Then the Neptunes leave, and the record warms up, becoming fuller and lighter and less constricted. She becomes fully strange and tender on "Men in This Town" (in which she wonders why there are no men available in Los Angeles for someone like her), "Gypsy," "Spy" (with Wyclef Jean, her collaborator on "Hips Don't Lie,") and finally "Mon Amour," an excellent, rockish revenge-fantasy on a boyfriend.
And that's how this bizarre record should end, on a note of optimism. Do not be distracted by "Give It Up to Me," produced by Timbaland with a Lil Wayne rap and included only on the album's American edition. It's beside the point. Except for the obvious service of translating her lyrics, there should be no American edition of Shakira: You just take her, in all her daffiness, or leave her.
- Ben Ratliff
"I DREAMED A DREAM" (Syco Music//Columbia)
All 12 cuts on Susan Boyle's debut album offer variations on the same aural concept: Boyle's impressively clear, steady voice with barely a catch in the throat and plain, unadorned phrasing seems to emanate from the center of a large cathedral. Most of the arrangements feature piano and hovering strings, and have no backbeats; some are flecked with guitar. Now and then a gospel chorus swells discreetly from behind, and distant drum rolls add gravity.
Every song has an earnest personal footnote included from Boyle, the 48-year-old singer who ascended from obscurity to overnight sensation in April on "Britain's Got Talent." "I Dreamed a Dream," the anthem from "Les Miserables" that propelled her to YouTube glory gets the following: "It's about a mother living in hard times. Very similar to my dream on a more personal level, of my 'life gone by' with Mum who dies at the age of 91 and whose 'dream' it was that I should 'do something' with my life. Mum this is for you."
The selections blur the line between sacred and secular, as Boyle invests torch songs ("Cry Me a River," "The End of the World") and hymns ("How Great Thou Art" "Amazing Grace" and "Silent Night") with the same attitude of faithful perseverance against the odds. The closest thing to an uptempo number is a slowed-down rendition of the Monkees' hit "Daydream Believer."
In the most striking cut Boyle turns the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" into a starkly beautiful declaration of tenacity and resolution. Her "Cry Me a River," the least vengeful version I've heard, makes this gloating crow of emotional payback a reflection on cosmic balance. Or as Boyle puts it in her footnote: "a release of tension and a greater insight into the human condition." Madonna's hit "You'll See" is about much the same thing; in Boyle's words: "My way of getting rid of the labels which have been unfair."
The hushed mood of it all recalls Celine Dion's blockbuster hit "My Heart Will Go On," without the Celtic inflections and drier eyes. On an album without humor or melodrama, a devotional spirit reigns.
- Stephen Holden
Did it occur to no one in the Leona Lewis camp that "Echo" might be an awkward title for her sophomore album? Lewis, a former winner of "X Factor," Simon Cowell's British music talent show, had last year's biggest-selling single in the United States in "Bleeding Love," a full-throated cry of wounded resolve. The desire to repeat that success is natural, but an echo tends to be weaker than the original signal: more diffuse, less defined. Lewis, already facing the pressures of a sequel, surely could have used a more promising theme.
There's truth behind the name, though. Lewis reunited with Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, the producer of "Bleeding Love," for several of the album's tracks, including the lead single, "Happy." Now hovering near the middle of the Hot 100, it's another powerhouse ballad girded with unsubtle beats and gilded with self-affirmation. "So what if it hurts me?" Lewis belts in the chorus. "So what if I break down?" Her subject is the pursuit of happiness, which comes off as noble but vague. "Happy" is but an echo of "Bleeding Love," and no amount of vocal heroism can make it otherwise.
Vocal heroism is Lewis' game, and she plays it ruthlessly, with an unselfconscious gusto evocative of classic Whitney Houston or Celine Dion. "Echo" succeeds best as a showcase for her extravagant instrument, with tidal upwellings of emotion. The album's basic aesthetic harks to the 1990s, right down to a hidden track: "Stone Hearts and Hand Grenades," by Julian Bunetta and Andrew Frampton.
But Lewis strives for relevance here too, with mixed results. "Love Letter" is Kelly Clarkson without the spunk; "Outta My Head" is Lady Gaga without the smirk. She does better with the steel sheen of "Don't Let Me Down," which involved an assist from Justin Timberlake, and "I Got You," which finds her coolly advising a lover: "Go ahead and say goodbye/I'll be alright." She's echoing a thought there, but it's a good one.
- Nate Chinen