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Confessionals? Maybe, But Not Their Own

It's hard to listen to new songs from Chris Brown and Rihanna and imagine that they're pouring their hearts out to their fans. All of their biggest hits were written by somebody else.

The first three leaked songs from Rihanna's Rated R, scheduled for a Nov. 23 release, were written by a who's-who of pop and R&B songwriters of the moment. "Wait Your Turn" and "Hard" were written by The-Dream, who also wrote her enormous 2007 hit "Umbrella." Though Rihanna is listed as a co-writer on "Russian Roulette," the singer and songwriter Ne-Yo brought it to her almost completed.

"I played it for her, and she loved it," Ne-Yo told MTV. "[We] went in and knocked it out." Sounds to me like Rihanna may have made a few tweaks, and maybe she — or her publicist — asked Ne-Yo to write something controversial for her, but the words aren't hers.

Rihanna's confirmed second single, "Hard," features Young Jeezy and has her declaring her swagger with lines like, "They can say whatever / I'm-a do whatever / No pain is forever ... Tougher than a lion." We want to believe her, but we know these words belong to someone else.

Brown's hits have always been others', as well. Sean Garrett, Scott Storch, Johnta Austin and the Underdogs are responsible for a lot of his big songs, like "Run It," "With You" and "No Air." It's no different on his upcoming album, Graffiti, due out Dec. 15.

Brown might have taken a bigger role in writing "I Can Transform Ya," the album's lead single, though he shares writing credits with heavy hitters like rapper Lil' Wayne and producer Swizz Beatz. In the song, he brags about cars, bags and money so much, I wonder if his past year helped him mature at all.

Here's a sample: "Wanna fly, we can go anywhere you wanna go / Jimmy Choos in Italy, Louis V in Tokyo / Something like Pinocchio / If you lie down, I'm-a grow." Superficial braggadocio and dumb sex lines. Chris Brown isn't processing Rihannagate here; he just wants to forget it. And his vulnerable love ballad, "Crawl," which some see as an overture to Rihanna, doesn't even have him listed as one of the writers. Adam Messinger and his production team created the song. So much for authentic penance.

Brown and Rihanna's new singles reveal what kept us from seeing domestic violence in their relationship for months. Their art is over-produced, and the lyric sheets they're handed prevent them from telling the stories they really need to tell — like "My boyfriend is hitting me," and "I witnessed abuse when I was a child, and now I don't know how else to express my frustrations."

But, ultimately, we shouldn't expect to really hear them as people in any of the music they sell. And we shouldn't blame them for that, either. No matter how adult their lives may seem, these two are kids. And their careers, like any young stars', are produced, choreographed and manufactured to the hilt.

Ultimately, Rihanna and Brown's respective teams are working to make them seem unshaken by their domestic dispute. But the strange dichotomy of their lead singles sends mixed messages. Rihanna is vulnerable in "Russian Roulette," then back with a vengeance in "Go Hard." Chris Brown is only about bedding women, spending money and buying things in "I Can Transform Ya," and then pines for a lost love in "Crawl."

Not only is this approach from the two inauthentic; it's also confusing. But like so many of us, I just can't stop listening.

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Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.