THERE are four cast-iron themes which any self-respecting diva will address in her music – namely love, sex, heartbreak and survival.
How she chooses to address these topics is up to the individual diva but if these three albums are the best our American sisters can come up with, then no wonder everyone is going gaga for Adele.
Rihanna has come far from the simple but effective friendship imagery of Umbrella – and that’s not intended as a compliment. If pop is just a numbers game, then RiRi is playing it like a pro, with all the chart-topping singles and album sales you could possibly want to pimp your X Factor intro montage.
But even she must know that size isn’t everything.
Talk That Talk sticks to the first two themes on the checklist. Laboured reggae/dubstep opener You Da One, the by-the-numbers ravey Calvin Harris collaborations We Found Love and Where You Been and The xx-sampling Drunk On Love are about as close to romance as she strays before Jay-Z ushers in the dirty talk on the title track and Rihanna responds with the first of numerous robotic, braying vocal performances of the give-it-to-me/can-you-take-it variety.
She sounds bored and detached as she delivers sex manual Watch N’ Learn. Dancehall track Cockiness (Love It) is positively queasy in its candour despite a fine, stark production job from Bangladesh, while Birthday Cake simply rehashes the double entrendres from Kelis’s Milkshake. Good church girl Kelly Rowland would never be that upfront, right? “I’m not cocky, I just love myself,” she declaims in the first few minutes of her third solo album Here I Am.
So, OK, maybe she would. However, Rowland finds safer ways to sell sex than Rihanna, getting smoochy on Motivation and vanilla ballad Keep It Between Us. Feeling Me Right Now is not what you might imagine, but a cack-handed attempt at addressing self-empowerment.
As befits a former member of Destiny’s Child, she delivers a fierce vocal performance in places but undercuts this by trading in platitudes and anonymous dancefloor filler.
You know she has made a bad deal when her guest rapper mates Lil Wayne, Big Sean and Medium-Sized Mike (spot the fictional MC) can inject more personality than the supposed star attraction and that she must fall back on euphoric trance track When Love Takes Over, a No.1 hit with David Guetta which is now more than two years old, to flesh out the not-so-deluxe version of the album, which is distended by a further six so-what tracks.
After however long in Beyonce’s shadow, Rowland’s current profile as an X Factor judge is presumably intended to confer leading lady status but, like Cheryl Cole, she’ll need to find better material than this to complete the transformation.
Mary J Blige outranks Rihanna and Rowland in seniority and musical class and, unlike her younger rivals, at least gives the impression that she is properly connected to the songs on this sequel to her 1994 breakthrough album My Life.
The original My Life documented Blige’s struggles with depression, addiction and an abusive relationship, and made her reputation as a tortured torch singer. Seventeen years on, she is in a better place personally. “I’m not saying that pain doesn’t exist no more in our life but now we understand how to navigate” she explains, using the royal “we”, on the album intro, a stilted staged phone call with Puff Daddy which states her intentions in case the ensuing 72 minutes of music can’t do the job.
Even so, her chosen subjects are still heartbreak and survival. “I’m in no condition to love,” she claims on the classy old school R&B number No Condition, following this up with the observation that “bad boys ain’t no good, good boys ain’t no fun” on Mr Wrong. We are not talking Back to Black levels of emotional disclosure.
Like its cumbersome title, My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act I) is way too long, only getting to the meat of the matter with a trio of ballads in the latter stages: first, the gospel blues of Empty Prayers, then the comfort blanket of Need Someone and, finally, token big, belting inspiration number The Living Proof which she sells for all its worth, even though it’s not really worth the selling.
The most interesting tracks are squirreled away right at the end. Nu-disco number One Life and the Sweet Inspirations-sampling Afro-dub bonus track Someone To Love Me save the album from being more old-fashioned than old school. Blige remains a class act but let’s hope Act II of her continuing journey is more inspired.
Rihanna: Talk That Talk
Def Jam, £13.99
Kelly Rowland: Here I Am
Universal Motown, £12.99
Mary J Blige: My Life II…The Journey
Geffen , £13.99