At her best, Rihanna blends machinated artifice with softness and pathos. She often flits between these two opposites, but her 2010 album Loud strikes a near-perfect balance. Her previous album, 2009's Rated R, was a pessimistic response to a humiliating assault by onetime boyfriend Chris Brown on the eve of the 2009 Grammys. And it's easy to hear Loud as a dialogue with her former paramour, but the album sounds redemptive. It's full of songs about rough sex, like "S&M" and "Skin," but Rihanna sounds like she's embracing her own kinky pleasure, and she sounds angelic over the trance pop of "Only Girl (In the World)." If Rated R was defensive, then Loud strikes an introspective and regretful tone, sometimes with necessary violence on the dancehall-tinged "Man Down," other times with the codependent romance of "Love the Way You Lie." "Maybe I'm a masochist," she sings on the latter. Rihanna's sexual politics are undeniably complicated, but it wouldn't matter if Loud wasn't a great R&B/pop album.
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