Do you remember Rihanna’s 2009 retreat from the spotlight? Do you remember how she didn’t perform at the GRAMMY Awards that year after being assaulted by then-partner Chris Brown on the way home from a Clive Davis-hosted party? Do you remember Rihanna’s silence following her departure from us? Do you remember Rihanna’s resurrection, which came eight months after the assault? The song was called “Russian Roulette,” and it was the first single from her fourth album, Rated R.
Beginning with a howling guitar solo, “Russian Roulette” is an anxious and intense ballad, flicking rapidly between fear and freedom. The video features the megastar in solitary confinement with scratch marks and blood splattered across the wall. Her hair, which had become a focal point following the “Umbrella” bob, was bleached blonde and shaved up the sides. It was a punk-inspired style, tapping into a genre that holds darkness and aggression at its core.
Upon its release, “Russian Roulette” was the first lead-single off a Rihanna album to miss the Billboard Hot 100, but it was a necessary entry point to her first genuinely cohesive album. When Rated R arrived less than a month later, her vision was fully realized. Rated R was pop music’s version of a horror film, drawing on anxious imagery of haunted houses and escape rooms. The soundscapes were damning and twisted, fusing rock and dubstep. The record was purposely intense, with the darkness of the concept matching the angry, sad, and sometimes fearless part of Rihanna’s brain she invited us into.
While the woman born Robyn Rihanna Fenty had “come into her own,” on previous record Good Girl Gone Bad, taking complete creative control for the first time, she seized lyrical control on Rated R, too. She co-wrote nine of the 13 songs on the album, marking the most she’d ever written on a project. The album presented as a chance for her to own her narrative for the first time that year.
“There were a lot of things going on in her life. The media was like a circus, everyone was involved,” says Makeba Riddick, a GRAMMY-winning singer-songwriter who is credited on 10 tracks on Rated R, having worked with Rihanna since her debut.
In interviews, Rihanna remained private, never directly addressing Brown. Instead, she pointed press to the record for answers. “I really vented on this album, and as I said before, all of it isn’t about that specific relationship or what I went through, ’cause that’s not who I am. That’s not all of who I am,” she told MTV. “It was really a roller coaster.”
While the overarching theme is darkness, Rihanna’s pain was manifesting in different ways, and even she tried to avoid embracing it. She told the NY Times she’d initially been turned away from ballads for the album: “I don’t want no sad songs. I don’t want no songs about love.” Yet, she eventually relented. At least half of the songs on Rated R could be considered ballads, and they offer the greatest personal insight.
On “Stupid In Love,” Rihanna’s angry at herself, attempting to detach from a bad relationship mentally. “My new nickname is ‘You Idiot,’” she sings in a crushing display of self-defeat. On “Photographs,” she helplessly sings: “Got nothing without you.” Her confidence rises and falls throughout moving from moments like “Photographs” to “G4L,” where she declares, “I lick the gun when I’m done ‘cause I know that revenge is sweet.” She’s both the murderer and the murder victim throughout the album.
The most crushing moment on Rated R arrives on the six-minute “Cold Case Love.” It was, at the time, the longest song she’d ever released. Her frustration and sadness explode. “What you did to me was a crime,” Rihanna sings in a stark, spine-tingling admission. As the anxiety reaches a boiling point, a drum-beat as powerful as Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” falls in, shattering hearts in the process.
There’s no resolve to Rated R, no happy ending. The album is Rihanna going through the motions in real-time, attempting to figure out how she was feeling. At times, she’s torn apart (“Cold Case Love”), and at other points, she’s rapping, “While you’re getting your cry on, I’m getting my fly on” (“Hard”). That’s part of what makes Rated R so powerful. Too often, pop music pretends to have all the answers. On Rated R, Rihanna didn’t have answers, only emotions.
“Rated R was her album to pour out her soul, from many different angles,” Riddick says. “The anger, the pain, the disappointment, the love, the regret, the transitioning into this international superstar.”
Regardless of any conflicting emotion, Rihanna was intent on telling her story, which meant having complete involvement in the curation of Rated R. She was a “workhorse” during this process, according to Riddick, as a team of hand-picked producers, writers and collaborators flew across the globe to make it. She worked on the album in Hawaii, London, Paris, San Francisco, and New York. In each place, Rihanna would engage in long conversations with the collaborators, detailing, “what she wanted to sing or perform about,” as Riddick puts it.
The events that preceded Rated R may always overshadow its content, but in retrospect, the album is one of her most formative projects. It proved Rihanna was done catering to the mainstream and was ready to carve an individual identity. She stepped into her self-appointed role as an icon and realized she could own the news cycle—including her personal life—pop trends and later, business ventures.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the pop landscape at the time of its release, Rated R didn’t match the commercial dominance of its predecessors. The album sold almost a third of the copies of Good Girl and generated just three top 10 singles. Of those, “Rude Boy,” the album’s lightest moment, landed at No. 1, shocking even co-writer and co-producer Riddick.
The charting songs were a sign that the mainstream was not quite as radical as Rihanna. Since then, however, the Saint Michael-born, Barbados-raised songstress has charted at No. 1 with a song about “S&M,” topped global charts with a straight-up dancehall cut “Work,” and gave Calvin Harris his first US chart smash with “We Found Love.”
“As we’ve seen, Rihanna has turned into more than a rockstar—[she’s] a cultural icon,” Riddick says. “What makes a cultural icon is the depth of a person. You can’t put them in a box and say, ‘that’s pop, that’s dance, that’s soul’ because they embody all of that.”
On Rated R, Rihanna was well-and-truly out of the pop box. Rather than ignore her publicized pain, she channeled the emotion into an angry, sad, confident, and reflective record. Rated R displays the fearlessness that’s come to define Rihanna, The Superstar.