I almost admire Rihanna's audacity. She is a willful woman in a world still fearful of them. She knew exactly the kind of backlash that collaborating again with Chris Brown would inspire and she did it anyway, taunting the world via Twitter last week in advance of last night's release of the remix of Talk That Talk's "Birthday Cake." (One tweet repurposed the lyrics of "Hard" from her superior, post-abuse album Rated R: "They can say whatever, Ima do whatever... No pain is forever <-----YUP! YOU KNOW THIS.") Rihanna has been unfairly accused of having no on-record personality, but the statement (and all of the psychological implications) made in one remix is bolder than that which your average contemporary pop star makes over the course of a single album.
So willful is Rihanna that she not only rejected better judgement and her record company (allegedly), but her own words, as spoken in her 2009 interview with Diane Sawyer, which aired around the time of Rated R's release:
"My selfish decision for love could result into some young girl getting killed. I could not be easy with that part. I couldn't be held responsible for telling them, 'Go back.' Even if Chris never hit me again, who's to say that their boyfriend won't? Who's to say that they won't kill these girls? And these are young girls...I just didn't realize how much of an impact I had on these girls' lives until that happened. It was a wake-up call. It was a wake-up call for me big time, especially when I took myself out to the situation and I'll say that to any young girl who's going through domestic violence: Don't react off of love. Eff love. Come out of the situation and look at it third person and for what it really is. And then make your decision, because love is so blind."
So is she regressing or making a cynical bid for attention (the second best currency in a rapidly crumbing industry)? Is she back in love, blinded all over again, the product of the effect on which she wisely opined two and a half years ago? None of this was any of our business, by the way, until she made it that way with such a public act of reapproval. As irresponsible as it would be for her to privately hook back up with Brown, there'd be little left to do but sigh over her not understanding the extent of the career she's chosen, that her words from 2009 were indeed true and that when you are a celebrity, at least part of your life is no longer your own. That's the trade-off for mass adulation and wealth. You don't have to be an explicit role model, but like it or not, you are an example.
The convenient thing about this "Birthday Cake" remix (and the infinitely duller "Turn Up the Music" remix, his song on which she now appears, in a one-two punch of releases) is that we need not examine a set of messy, complicated personal lives to critique the Rihanna/Chris Brown reunion: This time it's musical. It once was, too: Brown guested on a terrible remix of Rihanna's "Umbrella" before the pair confirmed their relationship. That one's long forgotten, as it deserves to be (it was dropped from playlists after the abuse reports, but it always seemed like a doomed, shrimpy attempt at eclipsing something that was iconic on first play).
The "Birthday Cake" remix will not evaporate so quickly. Like its Coldstone namesake, it will stick to the ass of pop culture. That's too bad because it is a terrible, terrible song. Brown, who's an embarrassment to the soul tradition, adds nothing as usual. His limited range and whiny tone help expose the song's ultimate bankruptcy -- what ran on Talk That Talk at a brisk minute and a half has been stretched to over three and a half minutes and you feel every extra second. Brown merely reiterates what Rihanna says verbatim. (Her in the first verse: "It's not even my birthday, but he wanna lick the icing off / I know you want it in the worst way, can't wait to blow my candles out"; Him in the second: "It's not even her birthday, but I wanna lick the icing off / Give it to her in the worst way, can't wait to blow the candles out.") His third person pronouns in reference to her help us look at this situation for what it really is: Chemistry-free. (When he does refer to her in the second person, it's to say, "Girl, I want to fuck you right now / Been a long time I been missing your body." So yeah, that's no better.)
An irritating clack of a song that finds its hook in a monotone, "Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake!," the "Birthday Cake" remix is a miserable experience. It's a shame because the original was something special: Not a song or an interlude, but a statement. It's a statement in which a woman sings, "I'mma make you my bitch," and it sounds plausible, not just wishful or compensatory to someone who already expressed what he thought of her humanity all over her face. The original features a hard cut right after Rihanna sings the words, "I wanna fuck you right now." She's so serious, so in control of her sexuality that she can't even be bothered to end her own song. It's real a shame that she somewhere lost belief in the power of leaving things unfinished.