How to Show Up Paul McCartney and Kanye West
Rihanna's new track "FourFiveSeconds" showcases a pop singer's power.
Of the three people featured on “FourFiveSeconds,” Rihanna's new song with Paul McCartney and Kanye West, two are regularly held up as paragons of artistic genius and one is Rihanna. McCartney is a Beatle who can still crush at Coachella; West is American Mozart, according to The Atlantic, and the new Steve Jobs, according to himself; Rihanna is a pop singer with exactly one co-writing credit on her most recent album. She's also had more No. 1 hits than anyone except for Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley, and, yes, The Beatles, but the fact that she's more of a performer than a writer means that a lot of people will never pay her much respect—because what can she be bringing to the table compared to two of the most important names in music?
Released on Saturday as the second glimpse of a reportedly "prolific" collaboration between McCartney and West, "FourFiveSeconds" is acoustic strumalong, sans percussion, with Rihanna and West trading lines about "wylin" out. I can't decide whether to call its sound totally surprising or totally expected. None of the artists involved have made a track quite like this before, and there’s not much resembling it on the radio right now, but it also follows a pretty basic formula. The instrumental arrangement pleases in its simplicity but not so successfully as to warrant the term "Beatlesesque"; the big vocal hooks nearly beg for an EDM remix; West delivers the least interesting lyrics of his career in a manner that explains why he normally uses autotune.
There's a reason to press “play," though: Rihanna, who puts on a clinic demonstrating the way in which pop performers can possess their own kind of genius. Listen to the ragged squeak in her voice in the first verse, and how she maintains control as she alternates between contemplative trills and gospel shouts during the bridge. Try to hear with fresh ears—ones that haven't been subjected to "Only Girl (In the World)" hundreds of times in the past five years—how distinctive her timbre and phrasing is. Note how the not-sorry-for-partying lyrics become a little more interesting in the context of Rihanna's career: She's singing about the same themes as on 2013's blearily fabulous Unapologetic, but instead of detailing a material trip she's making the spiritual case for hedonism.
Whatever the track's merits, they do of course largely come from the songwriters. But the song would be a lot more forgettable without its lead vocalist. Though initial reports said that "FourFiveSeconds" would end up on West's forthcoming album, it's now available for download on Rihanna's site, and that seems fair. It really is her song.