In the aftermath of the Chris Brown incident, Rated R could have gone one of three ways for Rihanna: A schlocky, inspirational ballad-filled account of her experience, an ignorance-is-bliss continuation of her winning 2008 dancefloor formula, or something much, much more daring than anything she’s ever done before. Lucky enough for us, she’s gone ahead with the latter.
Rated R finds the singer in a dark place. One needs look no further than the moody, high contrast Ellen von Unwerth-shot promotional photos for the album that feature the singer in a variety of S&M-lite poses, pointing her fingers like a gun and taking aim toward the camera in a skin-tight corset and standing bare-breasted within a lasso of barbed wire. In her video for “Russian Roulette,” the camera flashes between scenes of her partaking in the deadly game of chance to inside a padded cell, awaiting execution in the aftermath of the game.
She’s in a murderous mood for sure, which is why at a certain point I began referencing the artist by a new, more fitting nickname: “Rihannoir.”
Trading in her umbrella for a few gats and a razor sharp tongue, Rihanna’s weapons of choice have evolved significantly over the past year as she goes on the offensive for a large part of Rated R. Lyrically, Rihanna has all but rejected the meaningless dancefloor romps like “Don’t Stop the Music” and “S.O.S.,” instead greeting us with an in-your-face attitude, ballsy statements and sarcastic quips: “I’m such a fucking lady,” she taunts on top the repetitive, winding thuds of buzz single, “Wait Your Turn.”
On the roughest of cuts, including the menacingly paced “G4L,” Rihanna let’s loose a deluge of blood-chilling statements: “I lick the gun when I’m done, ’cause I know that revenge is sweet,” she purrs before the song begins before later announcing “We got our guns, got our guns / We got our guns in the motherfucking air.”
“Hard” finds Rihanna at her most defiant, pulling out all the stops to prove just why she’s so…well, hard: “I’ma rock this shit like fashion, as in goin’ til they say stop / And my runway never looked so clear / But the hottest bitch in heels right here,” she proudly proclaims over a grinding series of industrial beats, horns, and piano chords. Regardless of whether one is inclined to accept Riri’s new-found street cred, it’s all but impossible not to want to play along in the meantime.
Photo courtesy of Ultimate-Rihanna.com.
The album isn’t completely icy however, as the artist breaks down her defenses more than a few times for a series of introspective, though somewhat uneven jams. “Stupid in Love” is both the album’s only traditional ballad and also the most skippable part of Rated R, as the singer plods through a somewhat embarrassing chorus: “This is stupid / I’m not stupid / Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid.” Other slow numbers, including the masterful, six-minute “Cold Case Love” and the guitar-heavy “Fire Bomb” all offer subtle clues as to how she’s feeling: “Your love was breaking the law, but I needed a witness / So wake me up when itâ€™s over, it donâ€™t make any difference,” she coos through “Cold Case Love.”
But if anything’s meant for Brown, it’s the soaring, gut-wrenching “The Last Song,” the album’s outro which may also go down as Rihanna’s most overlooked, artistic piece of work yet.
This album is not, however, the confessional many thought it might have been. In fact, Rihanna delves into a host of other topics and issues including the triple-take worthy “Te Amo,” which follows a female suitor’s unsuccessful attempts for the singer’s affections atop a swaying, Latin beat. “I’m all for feeling the love, but I don’t feel that way,” Rihanna pleads as the song’s bridge fades. Be it the young singer’s first foray into lyrically exploring her sexuality or simply a not-so-subtle round of homophobia, “Te Amo” proves about as earnest in its replay value as Rihanna’s unrequited love.
Whatever Rated R lacks in synthesizers and dancefloor vagueries is more than made up for in “Rude Boy,” the only dance-oriented number of the album. Grinding, grooving and downright filthy, “Rude Boy” is destined to be the album’s best kept secret, meshing the island sway from her Music of the Sun days with the naughtiest come-ons that Rihanna has ever brought into the recording booth: “I like when you tell me kiss it there, I like when you tell me move it there /So giddy up, Time to get it up / You say you’re a rude boy, show me what you got now.”
From an artist who already has enough trouble making “Disturbia” seem thrilling in front of a live audience, the moody, at times beatless contents of Rated R have made for quite possibly the worst concert experience of all time.
Yet as a body of work in its own right, Rihanna’s fourth studio album provides the Barbados-born songstress her transition from fleeting radio obsession to legitimate pop icon in the making. The album is immensely listenable from start to finish; one of the most delightfully unexpected major label releases of the year and certainly her best record to date.
Though Rated R is not nearly as commercially viable or even as accessible as her past three records, the album offers a taste of what Madonna‘s Bedtime Stories and Kylie Minogue‘s Impossible Princess provided in their under appreciated, experimental production value–a distinction that may not make itself apparent until years down the line.
Congratulations Rihanna, you’ve assembled the first few pieces of your new throne.