|Paul McCartney, Rihanna, Kanye West.|
I remember Coldplay’s Chris Martin once saying the reason he so badly wanted to write a song for Rihanna was that she could sing anything. One listen to FourFiveSeconds, the brand new Rihanna / Kanye West / Paul McCartney collaboration, and you understand Martin was so, so right.
Princess Of China, the Coldplay / Rihanna UK top 5, US top 20 hit of 2012, should’ve been proof enough, but this latest single ends any arguments about the versatility of the enigmatic Barbadian. That said, Princess Of China was probably more a nice reminder of Martin’s own pop credentials than Rihanna’s. Martin may not always be considered cool, but few of his generation have his mastery of melody.
As for Rihanna, she isn’t quite in the bombastic vocal vein of Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, but her ability to branch out from R&B to sing material as diverse as club anthems to ballads to hip-hop to folk / pop (like this latest single) means that one-day her hit-list will arguably exceed all female rivals. Already at just 26 years of age she has 13 US#1 hits, tied with Michael Jackson and behind only Carey (18), Elvis Presley (18) and the Beatles (20). Rihanna is an almost old-fashioned pop-star in that she doesn’t write, but her vocal stamp is so malleable, so unique, so instantly identifiable and so commercial that she may as well get a songwriter’s credit.
Speaking of which, the only detracting point about FourFiveSeconds is that it’s inexplicably written by about million people / nine. Quite how that works is highly debatable, but Paul McCartney – statistically pop’s greatest ever songwriter – contributes instruments and gravitas while Kanye West delivers vocals, no-rapping and oddly for him of late, no controversy*. Both are credited as writers alongside big names like Dallas Austin and Ty Dollar Sign.
The blokes to one-side, it is Rihanna who is unquestionably the star of FourFiveSeconds. The song is a timely reminder that female peers Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Katy Perry may at times beat her for headlines and sales, but only Swift can touch her for musical diversity matched with longterm commercial success. Critics will rightly point out that FourFiveSeconds is really just a very simple four-chord, acoustic song. And they’re right. But assuming McCartney’s contribution was more than just 1/9th, perhaps a straight-ahead, stripped-down, guitar-driven song a-la Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was just what Rihanna needed to signal a change of direction for her upcoming eighth studio album.
Or maybe this song’s simplicity could’ve caused it to slip through the cracks in the hands of different lead vocalists? Kanye sounds OK – his name, coupled with the interest in him actually singing are sizable marketing points. But it’s Rihanna’s slightly hoarse, wholly compelling vocal that brings the immediacy of the melody to life. It’s simple but it’s pretty awesome too. This is FourFiveSeconds:
*POST GRAMMYS UPDATE – Well that all changed didn’t it!? Kanye reverted to the Kanye who makes everyone forget his artistic prowess with his post-show comments both idiotic and ignorant about Album of the Year winner Beck. For CNN’s take on the fall-out (and how it’s ironically benefited Beck), click here.