One Step Beyonce

Washington City Paper | June 2, 2006
Rihanna might be hugging up on Christina Milian’s ex-man, but she hasn’t exactly embraced her rival’s approach to music-making—save for the looking-like-Beyoncé part, of course. She’s pretty though not over-the-top sexy, and in the video for her current hit “SOS,” which modernizes Soft Cell’s ’80s hit “Tainted Love,” she tries to emulate a scene from Beyoncé’s “Check On It” video by donning a pink bodysuit. But instead of doing some booty shake, she just flops against a mirror looking like a rag doll spent from an intense game of doctor.

And unlike Milian, Rihanna knows the limitations of her voice. Instead of trying to plow through songs as loud and as high as possible, Rihanna plays with her lower register and stays far, far away from R&B shriek. As on So Amazin’, the production on A Girl Like Me is often better than the vocals, but unlike Milian, Rihanna doesn’t let the tracks outshine her.

“SOS” isn’t representative of Girl’s tone. Most of the disc has a breezy, laid-back reggae vibe—roots, dancehall, and a little dub—that pays homage to Rihanna’s native Barbados. The songs don’t necessarily require Beyoncé- or Mariah-level singing skill, and as Rihanna showed on one of last year’s hottest singles, “Pon De Replay,” her understated strength is lending girly garnish to heady rhythms.

Girl’s most adroit production comes from Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers, better known as Syndicated Rhythm Productions, who give Rihanna tracks with reggae foundations layered with enough pop elements that listeners aren’t jarred by the fact that the singer sounds more like Britney Spears than Marcia Griffiths.

On “Kisses Don’t Lie,” Rihanna is almost drowned out by a scratchy rock-steady guitar, and she doesn’t try to fight for prime position. She’s smart to fall back—listening to the track is like checking out an act while on a Caribbean vacation. The band can jam, and you can dance to the song, so Rihanna’s ability to enhance or detract from the groove is negligible. That’s especially apparent on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Selfish Girl” as well, both of which play with mellow grooves, spaced-out dub synth, and Rihanna’s kiddish emoting.

But Rihanna is capable of command. On the rootsy “Dem Haters,” she throws in a little commentary about users and abusers that steals the spotlight from the folks with the instruments. And on the hard-core dancehall track “Break It Off,” she doesn’t let guest Sean Paul steamroll her entirely.

The young singer falters only when her production does. Any abandonment of the island-urban formula for more standard contemporary R&B is disastrous. Rihanna lacks the pipes to carry a sappy piano ballad such as “Unfaithful,” an underdeveloped drum-machine slow jam like “We Ride,” or a hokey acoustic-guitar-assisted fiasco such as “Final Goodbye.”

While she may look like every other tarty chart-topper-in-training, Rihanna has a lock on reggae lite, which may be enough to distance her from numerous Beyoncé look-alikes. The singer herself seems desperate to make the distinction—she addresses cookie-cutter chicks at length on the album’s title track. “Some girls play the game/They all walk and talk and they dress the same/Nothing new to say/Don’t they realize/It’s so easy to see right through their disguise.”

If Rihanna were styled, packaged, and marketed a bit differently, it would take a lot less effort on the part of R&B/pop fans to discover that she’s not just another one of those cuties masquerading behind flaxen highlights. In fact, if Jay-Z would stop trying to sculpt R&B replicas of his famous lady friend, he could perhaps nurture talent rather than try to mark it with a “B.” You can date her, Jay, but you can’t duplicate her.

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