by Alex Knepper
Rated R is Rihanna’s Blackout. It’s nocturnal, aggressive, slightly sinister, and comes from a place of genuine emotional desperation and an exhaustion with everyone’s expectations of her.
From the album cover, we can tell what the attitude of this record is going to be: in the metallic close-up of her face, Rihanna, done-up with a heavy-metal hairdo, hides her face, almost shunning the listener. In the album booklet, there are photos of Rihanna in various disguises and compromised situations. She’s vulnerable and wants to hide herself. But she’s choosing to reveal herself, even though it hurts, as showcased in near-nude photographs of her body bound up in barbed wire.
All of my favorite pop albums have a pronounced manic-depressive vibe. If you can appreciate intro tracks done right, ‘Mad House’ is a fun one: organs blast, and layers of vocal harmony announce that madness is in the driver’s seat on this album. It gives a self-knowing wink to the listener inviting “those of you who think they can take it” to dive in.
For all that, the first couple of tracks are pretty tightly controlled: ‘Wait Your Turn’, maybe the best song on the album, is an imposing and arresting opening number, dizzying yet focused, and full of urgency and met expectations: ‘The wait is over!’ Exaggerated self-exaltation is the theme of the next song, ‘Hard’, with Jeezy adding a rough edge to an already-menacing production job. Rihanna boasts and brags throughout the whole song. But then comes the crash: ‘Stupid In Love’ is the story of everyone who’s ever pursued a man they know is no good for them: “This is stupid/I’m not stupid/Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid/(Stupid in love)”. After all the manic boasting of ‘Hard’, it’s whiplash into depressive self-loathing.
This up-and-down vibe animates the whole album. After ‘Stupid In Love’, we’re up again: ‘Rockstar 101’ features another aggressive production job and Slash (yes, that Slash) on guitar; down again for guitar-driven power ballads ‘Russian Roulette’ and ‘Fire Bomb’, which play more like Pat Benatar’s forlorn songs than Beyonce or Britney Spears dance hits. Then we take a detour through a couple of forgettable pure-pop songs (sorry, ‘Rude Boy’ fans), and a cold-warm-cold rollercoaster through the sleek and sinister ‘G4L’ (Gangsta 4 Life; sample lyric – “I lick the gun when I’m done/Cuz I know that revenge is sweet/So sweet”), and the wistful ‘Te Amo’, a standout not only for its successful and, on this album, unique fusion of sex and sadness, but for its interesting lyrical theme in which Rihanna realizes that the woman dancing with her isn’t just having fun but is attracted to her, and she feels pity for her rather than shock or disgust. The album closes with resigned sadness on ‘Cold Case Love’ and another guitar-driven ballad, ‘The Last Song.’
Rihanna never made another album like this; she pulled a near-total 180 back to pure pop on 2010’s Loud, which propelled her back to Good Girl Gone Bad-level singles-chart dominance. Rated R produced only one major hit, ‘Rude Boy’, which was highly unrepresentative of the album that yielded it. The album itself reached only #4 on the albums chart, which was a bit shocking after ‘that Rihanna reign’ (‘Hard’) she’d had with a long stretch of major hits from her previous era.
Explanations abound. The album was too ‘dark’ for the general public. She had to get the trauma of the Chris Brown situation out of her system. The songs were interesting from a production standpoint but lacked strong hooks. Perhaps the album has more ambition than ability.
All of this is true. It is a flawed album that is most interesting when considered as a whole; from a standpoint simply of proportion, there are a very large number of songs that give off an unwelcome vibe and deliver hooks that are serviceable, yet not the star of the song (‘Hard’, ‘Rockstar 101’, ‘G4L’). Few expected Rihanna to deliver such powerful guitar-driven mid-tempos that veer toward rock elements (‘Russian Roulette’, ‘Fire Bomb’, ‘The Last Song’), but there is not much of a Top 40 audience for that material; it was too much outside of what appealed to Rihanna’s target audience. She never again recorded material like this, despite all these songs being quite good.
Finally, the lyrics were simply hard for most people to relate to: they are either triumphant or despairing, braggadocious or self-loathing — and sometimes merely resigned and pensive. Artists love to make this stuff, but the general public becomes exhausted by it pretty quickly.
It certainly isn’t a ‘party album’ like Loud, Good Girl Gone Bad, or Talk That Talk. But 10 years on, I still listen to it in-full from time to time, and I can’t say that for any of those other three albums, even though I liked them all at the time (the former two more than the latter, if we’re being honest). The reason for this is that the album actually has something to say; it’s actually soul-baring; it takes a traumatic time and turns it into gold — one mark of a true artist. It is not just an album full of catchy tunes.
Albums like that have their utility, and Rihanna has no shortage of them in her discography, but Rated R is the only record she made until Anti that was a unified, cohesive artistic statement. Its aggressive and guitar-driven elements also appeal to the heavy metal fan in me, the side of me that loves ‘darker’ pop music, and my love of the defiant woman archetype. It checks a lot of boxes for me.
But it also has reached a milestone in standing the first real test of time for a pop record; many albums released around 10 years ago that received far more pleasing commencements sound today like products of their time, which cannot be said for Rated R. It would stand out in the best way even if it were released today.
It received mixed-to-positive reviews at the time of its release, but I cast my vote in favor of elevating its reputation. I’m fairly certain, in fact, that I’ll still find this album interesting and exceptional after another 10 years.
That Rihanna Reign just won’t let up!