“S&M” Rihanna (#2 Hot 100, Week of April 23, 2011)
When I first listened to this track as the opening salvo of Loud last fall, I thought of it as just another bombastic “Here I am!” album-opener and not a hit single. Boy, was I mistaken.
Lyrical content be damned, this has ended up as a hit on par with her first two singles from the record. It’s one thing to talk about S&M inside a song, it’s quite another to actually slap it on the title. But I guess between P!nk and Cee-Lo’s forays into f-word megahits recently, this pales in comparison. The lyrics and delivery are actually celebratory in nature, which is unexpected for what is usually seen as a darker subject.
Musically, RiRi veers dangerously close to repeating herself, something she’s been remarkably good at avoiding. By forging a perfect cross between the dance-rock crunch of “Shut Up and Drive” and the creepy synths and vocal arrangements of “Suburbia,” she manages to skip the rock song pretensions of the former and the gothiness of the latter to formulate something different and kind of amorphous.
The only off-putting element of “S&M” to me is the facile vocal cadence, which could be intentional but reads as uninspired. As on most RiRi material, I also marvel at how great she sounds in the studio. She seems to be working hard toward achieving that same level of accomplishment live (unlike her duet partner on the newly-released remix of this song, Britney), but has a little way to go yet.
And for the record, I support RiRi addressing the controversial subject matter. Everyone’s favorite line, “Sticks and stones may break my bones/But chains and whips excite me,” speaks to the crux of the issue. She’s not endorsing actual violence, just the “tools of the trade” used in erotic play. With that pretty explicit disclaimer, it’s amazing how many people still interpret this as sending a “mixed message.”