Originally meant to put this up on Friday; we assume Kat’s dealt with her hangover by now…
Mallory O’Donnell: I’ve often wanted to like Rihanna but in the past I’ve found her music to be either too arid and superficially “tough” (i.e. “Run This Town,” “Hard”) or downright annoying (“Umbrella”). “Only Girl (In the World)” is different – it’s a song both twelve year-olds and drag queens can lip-sync or sing along to with equal aplomb, an anthem both strident and vulnerable. Part of its success lies in how it partners the lyric that is most like a plea (the chorus) with nothing more than a drum boom echo and visceral rave stabs, and then how it builds from there to become a demand, then finally a command. Also, the usual panoply of effects and gimmicky syllabic phrasing seems to have been reduced from tic to quirk. How nice it is to be surprised!
Alfred Soto: This is more like it — Rihanna shouting herself deaf while hornets angrily buzz behind her. But my biggest cavil still applies: she has a knack for acting as if no backing track exists, so her colorless voice is exposed instead of playing against the arrangement. Neither she nor her producers understand that the psychodramas in which she stars require tenser vocal arrangements than they’re willing to expend.
Jonathan Bogart: While Chris Brown continues to sulk and throw tin-eared tantrums in the corner, Rihanna has emerged so teflon indestructible over the past two years that she thinks she can emulate, of all people, Kylie Minogue. She almost pulls it off, but not all the electronic fizz in the world can make that voice ebullient. As a victory lap, it’s entirely forgivable; as a sign pointing towards a new direction, it’s a bit ominous.
Michaelangelo Matos: It’s a little flat, isn’t it? Something about it still works, but only very modestly. She’s just not a diva at all, not in the giant-voiced sense we tend to associate that opera-derived term with. (I can’t help but think it’s “Girl” because she knew better than to compete with, say, “I’m Every Woman.”) Yet I can see it growing on me, maybe because I originally gave “Rude Boy” an  and would now hand it a .
Al Shipley: Rihanna and Stargate are a potent combination, given that “Rude Boy” and “Don’t Stop The Music” are probably my two favorite singles by her, but man this is just not hitting the mark at all; sounds almost more like that lame Usher/Max Martin joint than anything else.
Katherine St Asaph: Someone somewhere down the line must have noticed that “Rude Boy” hit much, much bigger than “Hard” or “Russian Roulette” and figured it was because the other two were so damn emo. They’re also better, but never mind that — the gloomy period is over! Rihanna will reign once more in dance supremacy! Well, almost. “Only Girl in the World” projects just as fucked-up an image as anything else she’s done. For once, though, it isn’t primarily in the music. The song’s mostly dark and dancy, but so is 90 percent of the charts. The real darkness is in the lyrics. “Make me feel like I’m the only girl in the world” is kind of complicated! The request is inherently insecure; to ask this, you’d have to think that the beautiful girls all over the world have indeed got somethin’ on you and that the only way to negate their allure is to get rid of them entirely, or at least be able to pretend. Because this is all just a feeling, of course, and there’s a big difference between wanting to feel like you’re in command and wanting to be in command: lower expectations. It’s more subtly desperate than it first appears — but then, it’s also hard to hear, because the music undermines it all. Why would somebody, having these lyrics to work with, spiral the chorus off into chipper, nearly major-key runs? “Paparazzi” had the same problem, but at least it made sense against the lyrics. This is just wrong.
Chuck Eddy: Synths that grab from the start then fade; vocals that start out shooting blanks but eventually stomp. If there’s supposed to be a dominatrix theme, she never pulls it off, but for once I don’t really mind; anonymity seems to become her.
Kat Stevens: The electro thump certainly ticks my Deadmau5-loving box, but alas on the first chorus RiRi hits a certain resonating frequency that turns her voice into an ALARMING FOGHORN. She then sticks with that same note and intensity for most of the rest of the song. Surely that’s the sort of note you save for the big finish? It’s certainly the sort of note that you really can’t deal with when you’re still a bit hungover from two days ago.
Martin Skidmore: I’m a big Rihanna fan, but when she starts bellowing on the chorus here, it rather made me cower away. The Stargate synth backing is fine, very dancefloor-friendly, and by the third chorus I had become accustomed to the yelling and it felt huge instead. Not her most interesting song, but the power is exceptional.
Alex Macpherson: Anonymous verses like an ironic comment on the song’s dramatic title gives way clumsily — and frankly, impolitely — to a bludgeoning, boring chorus. In the bridge, this gives way to Rihanna flailing incoherently. Way to regress.
Frank Kogan: Strange track that sounds almost nothing like Rihanna, blank but sung with great, beautiful precision at the start of each verse, potentially something exquisite and unexpected, but then bludgeoned to death by beats and bass in the chorus. I’m shaking my head for about the 500th time this year.