Rated R sees Rihanna return to the scene of the crime… thematically, at least. As an exploration of the darker moments in her life, the timing of this album leads to one conclusion: Rihanna has emerged from it all as a new artist, one who has left behind the generic pop songs of yore to write music that means something. This album will always exist as a metaphor for the events of February 8th, 2009, despite no explicit reference to the former couple’s pre-Grammy showdown.
We are not expected to work this out ourselves. “Mad House”, the opening barrage, sees Rihanna living out her own “Thriller” moment: “Ladies and Gentlemen; to those among you who are easily frightened, we suggest you turn away now.” The organ strikes up a chord, before a natty bass lines rattles along. The minor key harmonies are brilliant, with Rihanna provocatively challenging, “Come out, come out, come out, eh.” At only a minute and 35 seconds, the song is far too short, but this album opens up with a whole new box of tricks.
“Wait Your Turn”, the third single from the album, offers up the official marketing tag: “The Wait Is Ova”. She drops f-bombs all over the record, starting here — “I’m such a fucking lady” — and continuing to front on “Rockstar 101”, a song which will have Lil’ Wayne quaking in his boots. Rihanna roped Slash to feature on the track, pre-empting Wayne’s Rebirth: “Got my middle finger up, I don’t really give a fuck”. It’s more Crossover 101.
Young Jeezy delivers a forgettable verse on “Hard”, the song carried by the brass and heavy beat, coupled with a non-stop tirade against her competition: “I see you aiming at my pedestal/I better let you know/That I, I, I, I’m so hard”. A latter day “You Can’t Be Me”, if you like. Nas would be proud. Lead single “Russian Roulette” is a worthy centerpiece. The pulsating beats, affecting vocals, and brilliant refrain are all the hallmarks of a brilliant pop song. It stands out from the other tracks as proof that Rated R was a cathartic process for the singer. She’s not wilting like a flower, though; the girl is fierce. For someone who was “scared” of nudity, Rihanna now has her birthday suit on an awful lot — all three single covers find her in varying states of undress.
“Stupid Love” is a by-the-book R&B ballad, falling back on weak lyrics and uncharacteristically limp production: “I’m not stupid- don’t talk to me like I’m stupid.” Rihanna isn’t invincible, and there are moments of mishap. “Fire Bomb” sees her embracing the open road, dropping one too many car analogies, and stepping on Taylor Swift’s toes. “Last Song” overdoes it on the cheese factor and “Te Amo” barely manages to scrape through, the basic premise being “what does Te Amo mean?”.
Some tracks fall foul of commercial pitching, but the production is strong across the board. Smutty “Rude Boy” is full of infectious energy, with some downright dirty lyrics: “Come here rude boy, boy/Can you get it up /Come here rude boy, boy /Is you big enough.” It’s followed by sickly sweet duet “Photographs”, on which Will.i.am lent his voice and creative genius, crafting Rihanna’s own “No Air”. Justin Timberlake brought some of his trademark beatboxing effects to “Cold Case Love”, an impressive six-minute epic. Rihanna’s voice shines on this stripped back track, with the reverb racked up and Timberlake’s intelligent lyrics offering a focus for her anger.
Rated R sets a standard, but not as an act of revenge. It’s an example of how you should conduct yourself; Rihanna hasn’t turned out an album of real life experiences, instead moving into the metaphorical domain. The songs here offer a lot more depth and see her taking control of the show. No high profile celebrity has been so publicly abused in recent years, and the saga will continue to drag on as a result of this.
It’s too easy too look at this as a recount of all her hard times. The varying styles explored point to one fact only: this album is about Rihanna growing up. And what a “fucking lady” she is.