Public adversity doesn’t transform a minor artist into a pop genius any more than platinum sales do. But tragedy–be it death or disfigurement–can increase the resonance of solid craftsmanship as surely as stardom. “Russian Roulette,” a creepy little slo-mo melodrama on paper, curdled into a much starker confession when 2009’s most famous victim of domestic violence sang it. And on “Hard,” that ballad’s invulnerable mirror image, Rihanna sounded sexier, more self-possessed, more above-it-all than ever before — partly because we’d witnessed the “all” she’d risen so unfuckwithably above.
As tough-chick R&B pop goes, “Hard” handily laps the “Black Cat”-on-its-ninth-life insta-rock posturing Ri had relied on for “Shut Up and Drive.” At its cold core is a great Nash/Stewart production: a dead piano plink, an ominous synth swell rising from the deep, and a whip-crack beat disciplining the distant clatter of a trash can full of cymbals rolling down a hill. But this mastery never upstages the star, who rides the rhythm and fills its gaps with articulate cockiness–“Brilliant/ Resilient/ Fan mail from 27 million.” scans emotionally and metrically as pure hip-hop, while the brilliantly absurd gauntlet toss “Where dem bloggers at?” smartly leaves names unnamed. And that occasional catch in her voice reminds us that hardness is a mode of transcendence not chosen but thrust upon her.
After Rated R, Rihanna retreated on two fronts. She channeled her impulse for self-assertion into the huge, bland anthems “Only Girl in the World” (which radio made virtually true) and “What’s My Name?” (amnesia victim incessantly begs her nana to reveal her identity). And with “S&M,” her marketing of rough sex as fantasy seemed less brave and defiant than utterly, depressingly confused. In the three or so years since “Hard,” Ri has had her moments for sure. But ubiquity has not always become her.