Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sade Aims at Rihanna's Pedestal

At first listen, Rihanna's strong, haunting post-traumatic dancehall stomper "Hard," from the beleaguered Barbadian pop star's dark new album Rated R, and the title track of Sade's long-awaited new album Soldier of Love, which sold over half a million copies in its first week and topped the Billboard 200 albums chart, seem at most like distant, casual relatives. But when the former chose to set her video amid a hardcore military theme, it became all but inevitable that Sade's eventual video would likely feature similar themes, seeing as unlike with "Hard," the entire point of "Soldier of Love" depends on its militaristic metaphor. Which, therefore, would turn out more compelling, more visually gripping, more imminently watchable...in short, which war-themed music video would win the battle and which would lose?

Anyone want to venture a guess? Anyone?

I found Rihanna's video to be a perfect representation of everything I find at fault with her. Despite a seemingly huge budget, a visual landscape that simply screamed "edgy" (that buzzword so relentlessly bandied about by the star and her handlers in a desperate attempt at marketing the new-but-really-not-new Rihanna), a chorus of hunky backup dancers in full uniform, enough haute coutoure to make Lady Gaga drool, an actual machine gun, a bleak and riveting guest turn by rapper Jeezy, and overall a rather good song, the only weak link is Rihanna herself.

In other words, despite being given every tool in the shed (and some from the shed next door), Rihanna, as I'd predicted she would do with her career before the Chris Brown incident, doesn't show up. I'm not terribly convinced she'd have had anything to bring to the table if she had, but that's only partly the point. She either looks dead in the eyes or hiding behind sunglasses when she's supposed to be looking "hard," or she's flaunting her body like a pinup girl the way she famously did on a recent cover of GQ magazine. That's not to say that flaunting one's assets or even paying lip service (so to speak) to the objectification of women is always a bad move for a female artists - indeed, when done well, it can be either a brilliant gesture that reverses the power hierarchy in women's favor while appearing to do the opposite, or just a good way to sell a lot of albums, get rich and therefore out-money the man. But in the video for "Hard," Rihanna does not sell what she says she's selling. She's not in charge of the men who stand in formation as she bounces up and down their ranks and pretends occasionally to yell orders; instead, she seems more like the slutty girl tagging along with the boys for the ride.

Oh, Mickey, you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind...

Sade Adu is along for no ride, and there is no question who's in charge in the gorgeous, enthralling video for "Soldier of Love." Over the course of the five-minute video (one YouTube commenter echoed my surprise at discovering the actual run time of the song, which feels more like a marathon than a sprint - and that isn't a criticism) the fifty year old Nigerian-born Brit appears in numerous guises, from sparkling earth tone fatigues to glitter-covered belly-baring equestrian gear, and looks stunning in each one. She is a convincing presence, to be sure, but then Sade has always been convincing; she looks like she's been twirling lassos and teaching men to step since birth (although the steppers leave a bit to be desired, executing the strong choreography with military diligence if not military precision). The rest of the band makes a welcome and somewhat rare appearance, as well, which serves to delight long-time fans without distracting newcomers.

What "Soldier of Love" lacks in production values as compared with "Hard," it more than makes up for in content. The former is almost like a master class on how the latter could have done it right, but failed. In all, the video for "Soldier of Love" does what a music video should: it enhances the song as one watches it, but never overtakes it or becomes important in and of itself. One leaves the video with the same gutted and thrilled feeling one leaves the track.

"Hard" (Rihanna featuring Jeezy): C+
"Soldier of Love" (Sade): A-



"Hard" Rihanna feat. Jeezy


"Soldier of Love" Sade
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