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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

With "Love on the Brain," Rihanna made doo-wop modern

Few pop songs have genuinely surprised me in a positive way on first listen more than today's selection did.

When Rihanna announced her eighth album, ANTI, for a January 2016 release, I wholeheartedly expected it to be chock-full of the dance and pop that allowed her to dominate the radio and the charts with each new release for the better part of a decade. When she and Drake released lead single "Work" a day ahead of the album, I thought my suspicions were all but confirmed.

Then I heard "Love on the Brain," and I was blown away by the style choice and the artistry Rihanna and her team brought to the track. A far cry from any of her previous work, "Love on the Brain" is a 20-teens spin on 50s and 60s doo-wop — a spin that paid massive dividends for Rihanna, as she used it to flex her vocal control while bringing a mature sound to a contemporary lyrical outlook on toxic love.

Since Amy Winehouse's death in 2011, pop music had moved past the soulful throwback sound her work embodied in favor of sleek, modern production. Dance-pop was the "in" sound of the early to mid-10s, and Rihanna among others made the most of it with hits like "We Found Love." Around the middle of the decade, though, that EDM sound began to tire, and the time was ripe for pop producers to look backward for inspiration.

There's something about the simplicity and honesty of doo-wop chord progressions and the classic guitar and organ sound that feels both so comforting and so right for a wide variety of lyrical contexts. Producer and co-writer Fred Ball stayed true to much of the 50s and 60s songs from which he took inspiration, evoking an older sound even further by keeping its signature backing vocals, accenting chord changes with timpani hits, and writing the song in a triple meter (6/8). Above that instrumental, however, he updated the doo-wop sound by giving his production a thoroughly contemporary lyrical theme. It's this lyrical facelift that gives the song its modern edge and power, akin to what Silk Sonic did with their 70s-inspired debut record this past year.

Ball revealed that "Love on the Brain" wasn't written with Rihanna in mind — something I guess I expected, based on my shock at its place on ANTI — but it fits her voice as much as it does anyone. The alternation between her delicate delivery on the repeated "I"s at the start of phrases and lines like "I'm tired of being played like a violin" with the edge to her chorus ("Must be love on the brain / That's got me feeling this way...") is one of the major attributes that gives the song its power. I also feel the song derives some power from the uniqueness of Rihanna singing the chorus in her full voice, while she sings the verses in falsetto; as Ball points out, "[i]t's usually the other way around." The choice here to reverse that vocal norm leads to a more powerful delivery on the most impactful lines.

Said lyrics may also be of personal significance to Rihanna, considering its chorus lyrics about love that "beats [her] black and blue." With "Love on the Brain" constantly depicting a merging of violence and love, I can't help but think back to the abuse she suffered at the hands of Chris Brown, with whom she subsequently rekindled her relationship. Perhaps the additional lyrics Rihanna wrote for the song tapped into those memories. Whatever motivation she had when it came to the track it comes through in her vocal performance.

With ANTI remaining Rihanna's most recent album, "Love on the Brain" — her most recent solo single release — stands as the standard against which any new output, whenever it may arrive, will be judged. Its combination of an old musical form with contemporary edge, and Rihanna's maximization of her vocal talents, combine to set it apart from the rest of her catalog, not to mention the vast majority of the past decade's pop scene.


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