(Island Def Jam)
Sleigh Bells' "Rill Rill" is my favorite track of 2010. It was my headphones go-to since the night I got the Treats album; I encountered it in the occasional bar and restaurant, though nowhere I wouldn't have expected it to be. But Rihanna's "Rude Boy" is my favorite single of 2010. When I wasn't reaching for it, it was reaching for me. It resonated everywhere, hitting me the way singles are supposed to—an intense pleasure that was equal parts private and public, social and viral. It came at me from every direction, and it sounded better each time I heard it.
Remember how Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" got so monstrous that its accompanying album's suckage became irrelevant? That's the case with "Rude Boy," too. It outclassed everything else on last year's Rated R without looking back: On an album full of awkward material about a genuinely horrible event (Chris Brown's continuing career is a low point in a pop year full of them), the track where she demands to have the living hell fucked out of her was like a hot meal on a cold day. The singles from the new Loud have been, to put it kindly, thin. To put it unkindly, let's turn to Katherine St. Asaph's review of "What's My Name" on the Singles Jukebox: "Attention pop listeners: You have never heard of Rated R. Angry Rihanna never existed. There is only Sunny Rihanna, and her 2011 career will be a straight-line extrapolation from 'Pon De Replay.' Fawning over fucking Drake and his pre-algebra innuendo is just how the sun shines these days. You're smiling! Right?"
In a way, though, changing masks like that works in Rihanna's favor—it secures her icon status. Pop music is the movies now; every album is a new role. Pop has become more vertically integrated with the rest of the megaentertainment complex than at any time since the 1950s, largely because technological advances have meant big companies need to hold on for life. What that's given pop over the last couple of years is a sense of event that transcends the charts, and in some ways replaces them; obvious stage management is part of the act, as with Lady Gaga. A lot of people consider Rihanna a cipher, and I get why: There's a showbiz-kid blankness there. She's not a great singer. She just makes a completely defining single every couple of years. Not track—single.