Enough with the chains and whips already. Ever since 2009's Rated R, the relentlessly dark, blood-on-your-hands record she released after being assaulted by her then boyfriend Chris Brown, Rihanna, 23, has equated falling for someone with feeling tortured. On last year's LOUD, she even tried to make pain seem empowering with the hard-pounding single ''S&M.'' But between ''Love the Way You Lie,'' a domestic-violence saga played out with Eminem, and ''Man Down,'' a ragga-tinged murder ballad, she just sounded like she needed a hug.
So it's a relief to find that on her blissed-out sixth album, Talk That Talk, she's stopped trying to play it so tough. ''I'll let you in on a dirty secret,'' she purrs on ''Roc Me Out,'' ''I just want to be loved.'' And apparently, love's never come so easily to RiRi, whose new song titles include ''We Found Love,'' ''We All Want Love,'' and (yes) ''Drunk on Love.'' Is she finally admitting that being young and crushed-out on someone might feel, y'know, kind of fun?
True, she's still got two token I-like-it-rough tracks ''Birthday Cake'' and ''Cockiness (Love It)'' but they're just filler on an album that's all about dragging you out of the bedroom and onto the dance floor. U.K. club king Calvin Harris trades Rihanna's usual somber synths for disco ecstasy on ''We Found Love,'' a song that builds and builds to a climax that's so arena-ready it practically begs for someone to blow a vuvuzela. Teaming with pop vet Dr. Luke, Harris offers up more house-DJ bait with ''Where Have You Been,'' which begins with a cold-pulsing 4/4 beat before falling into a rapturous Daft Punk-style breakdown.
There's an international appeal to these songs, which were recorded in luxury suites across France, Germany, and Sweden. (For the aspirational traveler, room numbers are cited in the credits.) When Rihanna's not singing over Euro-friendly thumps, she's bouncing to a Caribbean melody, or dipping into dubstep; ''Watch n' Learn'' begins with a reggae drum fill straight out of Bob Marley's ''Buffalo Soldier.'' Jay-Z even touts their jet-set lifestyle on the title track, bragging that he can ''fly out to Ibiza/Just to get some pizza.'' Even with all those options, RiRi's ready to settle down on album highlight ''We All Want Love,'' which begins with a Red Hot Chili Peppers-echoing guitar riff and expands into a soaring sing-along. And the heartfelt power ballad ''Farewell'' finds her pledging loyalty to a guy who takes almost as many business trips as she does: ''Even though it kills me that you have to go/I know I'd be sadder if you didn't hit the road,'' she wails, with just enough of a wink to make him wonder what she'll do while he's gone. Smart girl. Let him get his pizza from Ibiza, but never let him forget what he's missing back home. B+