Rihanna - Rated R

Posted November 23, 2009
Tags: Rihanna,

Let’s talk about the night of February 8, a night that now hangs over everything Rihanna does...

Rated R Album Review

Let’s talk about the night of February 8, a night that now hangs over everything Rihanna does like a guillotine. That night, as Rihanna and Chris Brown left a pre-Grammy party in Los Angeles, the couple reportedly got into an argument, during which Brown beat Rihanna, punching her repeatedly in the face, a brutal assault for which he later plead guilty. That one night set off a media maelstrom, instantly transforming the already famous Rihanna into a superstar stalked by the media at every turn. Like Tupac and Biggie, now, and possibly for the rest of their lives, Rihanna and Chris Brown will be tied together in the public’s collective psyche. It is currently impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other, and impossible to listen to their music without searching for comments on their now shattered relationship.

I’m not convinced that Rihanna’s new album Rated R would have been significantly different if that terrible night in Los Angeles had never happened. Her last album Good Girl Gone Bad was already headed in a more artistically serious direction, but regardless, you can’t listen to Rated R’s unmistakable undertone of anger and regret and not assume the album is serving as a Chris Brown catharsis for Rihanna. The result is a dark, intensely stylized work that, at least for the foreseeable future, puts a nail into the coffin of the innocent, bubbly island princess America first fell in love with back in 2005. Whether by design or fate, Rihanna seems to understand that the teen fame game is inherently short lived, and that if she wants to remain a force in the music industry she has to start attracting a more adult audience, a truth that Chris Brown currently seems unable or unwilling to accept. (See, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop comparing them.) To put it bluntly, there’s a reason the album is Rated R.

In retrospect it was a bold move to drop Russian Roulette as the album’s lead single (with or without the accompanying, quasi-porn artwork). Russian Roulette, a title which itself is an allusion to murder/suicide, is not the kind of track usually used to promote young, female stars, even if it was penned by Ne-Yo. Over cinematically somber production Rihanna slowly delivers lines like, “play for keeps, take the gun, count to three.” You could use a lot of words to describe Russian Roulette, but “catchy” isn’t one of them, and that’s the point. From the outset Rihanna seemed intent on distancing herself from her pop past, a musical mission that continues on the only slightly more radio friendly Hard, the album’s Young Jeezy-assisted second single, and the more up-temo Wait Your Turn, a track that could have been more of a mainstream hit if Rihanna had dulled her blatantly aggressive vocals and lyrics: “I pitch with a grenade, swing away if you’re feeling brave.” Umbrella this is not.

For all its sinister intentions Rated R is still ultimately a pop album, and there are moments when Rihanna submits to show her lighter side, most prominently on Rude Boy, her most openly “I’m from Barbados” track since Pon De Replay, although while before her sexuality was innocent here she’s aggressive, openly demanding her man please her. The album’s most danceable track is easily Photographs, a track whose electro will.i.am production stands out against the rest of the album like a dead nun in a snowbank (that’s not a compliment). Perhaps most telling is Stupid in Love, a piano-driven track that in the past would have been a love ballad but here becomes an exploration of how even strong women stay in abusive relationships. Musically it’s not the album’s most captivating track, but its autobiographical implications easily make it Rated R’s most interesting: “Blood on your hands, but still you insist on telling me lies.” Not a lot of detective work needed there.

Rihanna’s always had a good voice, but not a stellar one. She’s always been beautiful, but not a supermodel, charismatic but not captivating. No, her appeal has relied more on her ability to do a lot of things very well instead of one thing extremely well, and now that she’s begun to truly push artistic boundaries she’s opened the door to a long and elite career. With all apologies to Beyonce, I don’t think any other female artist could have pulled off tracks like Rockstar 101 and Cold Case Love so well, but like Eminem’s Relapse, Rated R won’t go down in history as Rihanna’s best or best selling album. Instead it’s a necessary album, an album that she had to make in order to continue making music on her terms. And for Rihanna, no victory (or revenge) could possibly taste so sweet.

DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins

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Posted November 23, 2009
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