Last year was possibly the nadir of Rihanna’s young life, and it showed all over her aptly titled Rated R a bleak, bullet-cased chronicle of a domestic-violence victim–turned–sonic vigilante.
Loud, the 22-year-old Barbados native’s fifth disc, comes almost a year to the day after R, and only scant traces of that wounded warrior remain. In her place is a rebooted pop vixen, a Caribbean-accented kitten with a whip. What begins with late-night-Cinemax naughtiness (see: explicitly carnal opener ''S&M'' and playful Drake collab ''What’s My Name?'') soon yields to the walk-away ballad ''Fading,'' a gorgeously synthesized moment of sweet defiance. The Jameson-swilling, TGIF-toasting ''Cheers (Drink to That)'' folds a left-field Avril Lavigne sample into a crunked party anthem, while the rum-pa-pum ragga ''Man Down'' burrows neck-deep in island rhythms. Lead single ''Only Girl (In the World)'' finds her playing the spiraling dance-floor siren, a role she carries through the airy ''Complicated.'' Even while telling a recalcitrant man how hard he is to love, she sounds almost buoyant, her newly expanded vocals eager to scale the song’s high-altitude house beat.
At times the album’s lurid sexuality can feel forced: kink as oversold diva commodity. What Loud showcases best, though, is a star undefeated by her worst circumstances and finding redemption in exactly the kind of pop nirvana that made her famous in the first place. A–