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…music: California King-size effort

April 17, 2011

YouTube – Rihanna – California King Bed – American Idol Live [HD].

One of my blog-mottos is that if I can dish it out, I should be willing to turn around and eat it.  I commented a couple of days ago in my review of “S&M” that Rihanna has struggled to duplicate her studio vocal feats live.

As if on cue, I finally got around to watching the American Idol results show from Thursday night and happened upon RiRi belting out a pretty convincing version of “California King Bed,” which looks to be her next single and is also probably my favorite track off of Loud.

Yes, I just used the words “belt” and “RiRi” in the same sentence without making reference to fashion.  She didn’t all-the-way hit all the notes, but she skillfully slid through the rough patches with smart compromises and some actual vocal runs.  You know, like a real, professional singer.  And as for the money notes–she nailed them, just like on the record.

On one hand, I realize that it’s a little sad to be surprised that one of the most popular singers on the planet actually sang a song well on live TV.  On the other hand, pop stars are more than just singers, and sometimes they aren’t great singers at all.  Pop stars are personalities with story arcs, and I find Rihanna’s compelling.

In my personal evaluations, I’ve been rough on Rihanna.  There’s a widespread perception, that I largely concur with, that Rihanna was snatched up by Jay-Z and Def Jam because of her beauty and was sent through the pop-star machine, which packaged and served her up to indiscriminate young music fans as a real singer.

RiRi’s first two records were completely off of my radar.  The first time she made a dent in my giveadamnness was when she released “Unfaithful,” which I still maintain is one of the most awful vocal performances on a top 10 hit in the past decade.  It came dangerously close to what the country folks in my family might call caterwauling.

Then came “Umbrella,” which was not only a superb record all-around, but finally, FINALLY served as an appropriate vehicle for Rihanna’s aggressive, deep, island-y voice.  Since that time, I’ve mainly marveled at the Rihanna Project and not Rihanna per se.  Her records have become flawlessly written and produced, smartly tailored to her voice, and backed up with creative music videos that play up her beauty and downplay her lack of overall stage presence. But Rihanna herself?  Never counted myself as a fan.

Somewhere in the midst of all this hoopla, however, Rihanna has apparently been studying and working very hard.  This is the compelling part.  While it would have been very easy for her to coast on the immense amount of assistance she has in her creative endeavors, it appears that she has been working on her voice and her stage presence.  At some point, she decided to try to bring quality to what she was already commercially successful at.

When I heard Loud in its entirety, I was shocked.  What sort of devices did they have to bring into the studio to make her voice sound that powerful, I joked.  How is she ever going to tour behind this album without passing out from lack of oxygen?

While watching RiRi’s disappointing SNL performances last fall, I received my answer.  Her “backup” singers were singing the louder parts with her in unison, alleviating the need for actual vocal power.  I should have known.

Still, by placing vocally demanding songs (and no Auto-Tune in evidence) on the record, Rihanna set the bar higher for herself.

And with last week’s entirely competent performance, she may actually be rising to meet that bar.  And I’m all for it.  As much as I dislike eating my words, I dislike more having to dish out negative feedback in the first place.

I relish the idea of being able to say in ten years, “Remember back when Rihanna was just a pop star and people said all those nasty things about her singing?  I guess she showed them!”  I’m quite the sucker for a happy ending.

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