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The punkish hairdo; the rumored affair with label prez Jay-Z; the overtly sex-starved stage routine. This is maturity, apparently, and it’s splashed all over the cover of Rihanna’s third album in as many years, her svelte physique twisted into a banana arch. On Good Girl Gone Bad, the Bajan import redraws herself as a serious, time-tested pop star, which means being goofy and sexually daring—often simultaneously, as when she’s telling a guy “I’m a fine-tuned supersonic speed machine” on the ridiculous, New Order–biting car-as-sex-kitten metaphor “Shut Up and Drive.” In the past, Rihanna has failed to establish herself, engineering a fussy, nomadic sound that started out as soca, then fled for jungle-tinged bubblegum (as on 2006’s “S.O.S”), and has now morphed into a sporadic melting pot of good rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, country, bad rock ‘n’ roll, and techno. Good Girl never settles on a sound, and Rihanna vacillates between aping Gretchen Wilson, Ashanti,
Gwen Stefani, and Pink. Nonetheless, she often sounds every bit like the superstar she clearly intends to be.
In terms of inventive, catchy metaphors, huge lead single “Umbrella” may be the worst thing since 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop,” but generally that’s what constitutes a hit: simple Girl Scout images. Timbaland submits three standout tracks, including the Justin Timberlake– assisted “Rehab,” full of jingling bells and a rumbling synth pattern. Not all is dandy elsewhere—the cheesy aerobics workout “Don’t Stop the Music” belongs at a Bat Mitzvah, and “Push Up on Me” is a so-so come-on that displays more hormones than talent. But Good Girl‘s finest moment comes last, on the title track, wherein Rihanna explores her idea of a bad girl in detail: “All he do is keep me at home/Won’t let me go nowhere/He thinks that because I’m at home I won’t be getting it on.” None of this is convincing, but if nothing else, she’s the hardest-working marginally talented artist out there.