The whole affair, out Nov. 23, feels like any shred of innocence that allowed Rihanna to joyfully sing her past pop hits has been stripped from her very marrow. She’s 21 going on 35 here.
As anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock the past year knows, it’s been a particularly painful year for the singer and all the understandable distrust and hurt that she feels from being abused by her ex Chris Brown seemingly plays out writ large on a number of the tracks here (given that she doesn’t write most her own material, she has to find others to voice her anger and frustration). It is impossible to listen to many of the songs on “Rated R”—such as “Cold Case Love” (a highlight co-written by Justin Timberlake) or “Stupid in Love”-- and not filter them through that horrific context whether that is how they are meant to be heard or not.
Yes, there is a world of difference between playing out some revenge fantasy in song and hitting someone in real life—and we are in no way suggesting otherwise-- but it can be a fine line to delicately walk between being both the totally innocent victim and the perpetrator, both of which she plays on “Rated R.” On “Rude Boy,” she tells her lover, “I like the way you pull my hair.” It’s tempting to give Rihanna a free pass in the name of expressing her rage and art, but it’s equally fair to call her out for sending, if not mixed, slightly confounding messages.
Rihanna doesn’t have a particularly strong or broad range, but her voice is expressive and supple. One of her strongest suits is her delivery that often reflects her island upbringing. Instead of trying to sound like every other pop singer, on such tunes as “Wait Your Turn,” and “Hard,” she incorporates Caribbean beats and her patois into the songs, giving them both a unique feel.
Much of the credit has to be given to her collaborators: Timbaland, Tricky Stewart, Timberlake and Ne-Yo. Plus, Young Jeezy’s rap on “Hard,” sharpens the fangs on the album’s most commercial cut. Will.i.am brings a touch of sweetness and complements Rihanna’s soft side on “Photographs.” Rihanna easily shifts to her inner heavy-metal side with “Rockstar 101,” on which she’s accompanied by every one’s go-to guitarist, Slash. Her only real misstep is her toe-dip into Sappho soft-core on “Te Amo,” on which she heavily flirts before gently telling a Latin lovely that she doesn’t play that way. Maybe she felt that this was the one group she’d ignored in her often overtly sexual imagery.
All this drama plays out among a sonic landscape of hypnotic beats and layered rhythms, much of it intriguing, but for anyone looking for the escape from the daily doldrums that much of Rihanna’s earlier music provided, look elsewhere. “Rated R” is a lot of things, but fun is definitely not one of them.