Pop Song Review: Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”

So it looks like, after a relatively lengthy hiatus, Rihanna is back on the music scene – with a stripped-down acoustic ballad nonetheless. Well, that means today I’m reviewing “FourFiveSeconds,” the oddly-titled new single from Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney.

First impressions: Oh. Right, okay. Hard to get excited about this, to be honest.

The music: “FourFiveSeconds” is composed as a sparse ballad with strong melodic vocals resting over an acoustic guitar accompaniment – and that’s all, folks! Derrrrrr dah-dah duh-duh-derr, derr-dah-dah-dah derr

Okay, seriously though, how in-depth do you want me to go with this? Do you even need me to talk about the music here? I know too much about music to just say “it’s a pretty song” and too little to go into the sheer specifics required to generate an interesting discussion, so what do I say? It’s a very conventionally written song with few surprises – you can hear the Pop Music Chords clicking together nicely in there – while the orchestration is sparse, crisp and minimalist, highlighting the melody as sung by Rihanna and West. There’s no bass here but it still feels full and grounded, the instrumentation supported by the strength and clarity of the vocals.

Speaking of which, I do like how raw Rihanna’s singing is: away from all the studio trickery and tiresome sexual posturing, she really does have a whopper of a voice. It’s also a rare event to hear Kanye West actually sing (I think) without Autotune. I don’t mind it at all. But can I ask, what exactly is going on in the background while Kanye is singing? Was somebody having a domestic in the other room while his parts were being recorded? No, hang on, it sounds like a child… laughing? Or is that Rihanna providing backing… squawks?

Overall it’s a safe, intimate song that isn’t terribly memorable but is quite nice to listen to – and that really is about all I have to say. Yeesh, I never thought I’d have so little to write about a song co-written by a Beatle. Sorry guys, but a pleasant acoustic ballad isn’t the easiest thing to write about. If they’d thrown in a trombone solo or something I might have been able to stretch out my critique.

The lyrics: “FourFiveSeconds” is a song about estranged love. I think. It’s… it’s not quite clear.

“I think I’ve had enough, I might get a little drunk / I say what’s on my mind, I might do a little time.” Rihanna here is exasperated by… something, which has led her to start drinking. When she drinks her filters turn off and… she goes to prison? Okay, sure, maybe she goes on the bender to end all benders, a la Krusty? S’happened before. Of course, it would be nice to know what’s triggered all this as well.

“‘Cos all of my kindness is taken for weakness.” Fair enough, but what does that have to do with you getting smashed and doing time? Also, in my experience people who get drunk and boast about how they like to “say what’s on [their] mind” rarely have anything kind to say.

“Woke up as an optimist / Sun was shinin’ , I ‘m positive.” Now Kanye’s taken the mic. I think he’s trying to say that he was feeling positive when the sun was out, but due to the inconsistent tense it just sounds like he’s trying to convince himself that it was sunny earlier.

“Then I heard you was talking trash / Hold me back, I’m about to spaz.” Oh, jeez, Kanye… you know what? Don’t change. Don’t ever change.

“Now I know that you’re up tonight, thinking ‘how could I be so reckless?’ / But I just can’t apologise, I hope you can understand.” No. No, I don’t understand, Rihanna, because first of all, going by your own statement you don’t have anything to be sorry for – if he’s the one being reckless, why do you need to apologise? I suppose if we remove those quote marks and assume it’s actually Rihanna’s own recklessness she refuses to apologise for, it makes a bit more sense.

“Now I’m four, five seconds from wildin’ / And we got three more days ’til Friday / I’m trying to make it back by Monday morning.” So… it’s Tuesday and you’re already exhausted? This is going to be a tough week for you. Also, I think you’re going to make it back by Monday. It’s 2015 – how does it take anyone more than six days to get anywhere?

“They want to buy my pride / But that just ain’t up for sale.” Who’s “they”? And how do you buy anybody’s… you know what? Let’s just pause for a moment to try and figure out exactly what this song is prattling on about. We’ve got two people, probably lovers, as represented by Rihanna and Kanye, frustated with each other for reasons that are never explained, apparently living an indeterminate distance from each other. Rihanna blames herself for the friction between them, while also blaming Kanye who just seems keen to, ahem, “spaz.” Anyone any closer?

In fact, let’s do some outside research (i.e. leeching off Wikipedia links – shapow!). According to Sharan Shetty of Slate it’s about “heartbreak and redemption.” Great help, that is. Yahoo!, meanwhile, thinks it’s about “personal travails and confusion”; well, I’m certainly confused, so well done there. Elle‘s Nora Crotty has probably the best interpretation of the three, calling it “a pop music ode to repenting in the morning for the foolish mistakes you made the night before.” Mind you, she also calls the song “awesome”, so I’m not sure I can trust her opinion completely. Sometimes I feel as if I’m putting more work into this than people who are actually paid to write about this stuff.

“If I go to jail tonight, promise you’ll pay my bill.” Wait, now Kanye’s going to prison?

“I swear I wish somebody would tell me / Ooh, that’s all I want.” You wish somebody would tell you… what? No, actually, this line perfectly encapsulates what this song is about. There’s a vague theme of estrangement and exhaustion underneath all this, but otherwise these lyrics don’t make any blasted sense, as if they’re on the cusp of meaning something but haven’t figured out quite what it is.

Verdict: Well, it’s pleasant enough, if not exactly interesting or worthwhile. The word that comes to mind is “harmless”: for all its references to “wildin'” it’s not exactly a wild song itself. Should it be? Well, considering it features one of the greatest songwriters of all time collaborating with two of the most prolific R&B artists of our generation, I think it should have a little more vim to it. Plus the lyrics don’t make much sense, which kinda bothers me. Still, I’ll give it a 3 out of 5. It’s nice and… that’s about it.

Today’s double-up is “The Night Before” by The Beatles. Yes, it’s another Beatles song, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to put this in. Anyway, I’m not apologising. I hope you can understand.

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