It's historically been hard to warm up to a slow Rihanna song, and that's equal parts due to the natural quality of her vocals, the persona she's carved for herself as a pop star, and, unfortunately, what we know about Rihanna the person. She's long overdue for a meaningful ballad, and her most recent attempts haven't held a candle to her more EDM-influenced material, but even as I write that I feel like a mom imploring her kids to eat their vegetables, which is weird. The towering ballad should be a staple in any pop diva's catalog, but meandering, laggy lowlights like 2010's "California King Bed" made me think that Rihanna might be an exception to that rule. The past year has seen a steady stream of sweat-drenched dance hits that were so much fun it felt objectively incorrect to say that anything was missing. (Though the non-single "Fool in Love" off of Talk That Talk was a strong step in the right direction.)
For the first few weeks of its release, I felt underwhelmed by "Diamonds," and I couldn't exactly figure out why. Even though I am generally very pro-Rihanna, in the past month I found myself rooting for Ke$ha's "Die Young" to beat it on the race up the charts — both songs were released the same week, were co-written by wunderkind songwriter Benny Blanco, and were the lead singles for the respective artists' upcoming albums. And while most would say Ke$ha is the underdog in this imaginary battle, it felt like a no-brainer to favor her single — a stompy, soaring anthem to sloppy partying (really, what else?) with one of the best synth centerpieces of the year.
(I also realized that every time I heard the opening keyboard chords on "Diamonds" my brain was telling me I was about to listen to M83's "Midnight City," and the lack of a climactic sax solo probably left me feeling a little underserved.)
But in the last week or so, I've come around to "Diamonds" — with not a little help from Rihanna's insane, deeply affecting performance of it on SNL this past weekend. Sure, I guess seapunk is mainstream now, but I think that's an acceptable price to pay to watch a pop artist who we're used to seeing hide behind sick drops and Auto-Tune execute a bonkers vision and a confident vocal performance on live television.
All sax jokes aside, a lot of the reason that "Diamonds" doesn't sound as fresh as it could is that its production, while both a dramatic change of tone and yet somehow still perfectly on-brand, sounds about a year late to the Chromatics/M83/Drive soundtrack buzz party of late 2011. I'm actually kind of shocked that it took a mainstream pop artist this long to appropriate that sound into a radio hit, but I guess there's more instant gratification in MDMA than in Ambien. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy that sound, but it's not the most mind-blowingly original thing anymore.
What keeps the track lifted is its steady pace — it's rhythmic and mellow at the same time, and the heartbeat-esque bass kick keeps it moving forward, and gives what might have turned into a sleepy or monotonous melody a determined energy. As mentioned above, Rihanna has plenty of good songs to put on at an impromptu dance party, this is her first that seems tailor-made for a late-night, bleary-eyed grocery store run. I appreciate that.
If the first-person omniscient "We Found Love" were a movie, "Diamonds" could easily be a monologue from one of its melancholy, love-struck characters. Written by Sia Furler, they're on the abstract end of Rihanna's lyrical output, for the most part. Of course, RiRi still seems to be contractually obligated to talk about ecstasy at least three times per track, which seems kind of on the nose in a song whose lyrics sound like they were written by somebody on ecstasy. It's too bad, because it weighs down otherwise dreamy stanzas like this:
Palms rise to the universe
As we, moonshine and molly
Feel the warmth we’ll never die
We’re like diamonds in the sky
Some of the initial critical response to the song fixated on the opening line, "Find light in the beautiful sea, I choose to be happy," and its perceived optimism compared to Rihanna's high-energy but often nihilistic catalog. But if anything, I think this song inches even further toward the deep end of hallucinatory despair than the more histrionic "We Found Love." The intro sequence to the "Diamonds" video, which was released last week, seems to suggest that the entire song is a fever dream after one too many hits from the Swarovski blunt. There's some kind of joy there, but it's not grounded in any kind of lucidity. I can imagine Lana Del Rey doing a pretty comfortable cover of it.