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Rihanna - Rated R

Rihanna, Rated R

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

RIHANNA’S first album since being assaulted by ex-boyfriend Chris Brown earlier this year is as damaged and compulsive as you might expect – yet also strangely warped and uncomfortable to listen to.

Having been forced to live her life and expose her injuries (including a split lip, black eye and bite marks on her arm) in full glare of the public, the singer now bares her soul, her body and her anger and vulnerability throughout the 13 songs that comprise Rated R. And it’s pretty R rated!

Occasionally, there’s the sneaking suspicion that she’s taken a horrific chapter in her life and cashed in. But then you write what you know, and the most recent – and most startling – thing to happen to Rihanna in recent months was her vicious assault. It must have knocked her for six.

The provocative video for Russian Roulette suggested as much… as did the song’s lyrics.

Anyone anticipating that to be the full extent of Rihanna’s pain should think again… as Rated R is a revealing insight into the turmoil of the months since.

Few tracks recall the pure pop innocence and/or breeziness of seminal hits such as Umbrella, replaced instead by humility, anger, frustration, anguish and pain.

As the album gets underway, an announcer bids welcome to the mad house – or Rihanna’s mind, before warped synths and Halloween-style organs swirl around her pained R’n‘B vocals.

Wait Your Turn continues the warped synths, announcing “the wait is over”, and declaring “it’s just the way the game is played”… as if in reference to the anticipation and media attention surrounding the release of the album.

The first properly decent track, however, is the sinister urban offering Hard, featuring Jeezy, which drops one of the most compelling beats on the LP as well as occasional horn fanfares. But there’s a darkness inherent that’s reflected in lyrics warning: “I’d better let you know that I’m so hard!”

It’s followed immediately by the raw piano ballad Stupid In Love, in which the more vulnerable and wounded side of the singer is laid bare. Lyrics include: “This is stupid, I’m not stupid, don’t talk to me like I’m stupid, I still love you but I just can’t do this… I may be dumb but I’m not stupid.”

It’s addictive listening but fiercely personal and a little too close to home for comfort as a ballad. You won’t want to sing it out loud.

Later, Russian Roulette exposes more of the terror behind Rihanna’s experiences as she speaks of her fear and invites the listener [or Brown, or her ghosts] to “pull the trigger”. A lone shot rings out to draw the track to a close, while the video is dominated by images of torture, pain and… well, masturbation.

Her defiant side is evident on tracks such as Rockstar 101 and Fire Bomb, where guitars replace beats and R’n‘B. But they’re not particularly memorable moments.

In fact, the best stuff is reserved for deep into the LP. Rude Boy is a feisty, club-based R’n‘B anthem that offers a rare break from the atmosphere of pain, which finds Rihanna in more submissive, even playful territory. But it still contains an edge.

While her duet with Will.I.Am on Photographs has plenty of pop elements more in keeping with the Black Eyed Peas and Fergie’s style of delivering. It’s still provocative lyrically, though, with lines such as “it could have been you and me” reflecting a sense of loss and reget.

Te Amo drops a welcome Latino element that soundchecks Nelly Furtado and offers another highlight, while the Justin Timberlake penned Cold Case Love slow builds nicely into one of the best ballads that Rihanna has ever delivered. Yet, the anguish remains amid lyrics such as “what you did to me was a crime”.

The Last Song, meanwhile, ends things in reflective R’n‘B ballad mode, almost mournfully, and with a guitar riff reminiscent of Coldplay running throughout. It’s one telling lyric asking you to reflect on “what if you wasted love”?

There are break up albums, revenge albums, self re-discovery albums and then there’s Rihanna. Rated R, complete with semi naked shots of the singer all over the sleeve notes and a half-covered face on the cover, suggests the work of an artist who still hasn’t properly recovered.

It’s painful, mixed up, anguished listening that provides one of the most provocative listens of the year. But it’s a difficult LP to really enjoy given the sentiments and reality behind it. It could well leave you with a lot of mixed feelings… and it really should.

Download picks: Hard, Photographs, Rude Boy, Te Amo, Cold Case Love

Track listing:

  1. Mad House
  2. Wait Your Turn
  3. Hard feat Jeezy
  4. Stupid In Love
  5. Rockstar 101 feat Slash
  6. Russian Roulette
  7. Fire Bomb
  8. Rude Boy
  9. Photographs feat Will.I.Am
  10. G4
  11. Te Amo
  12. Cold Case Love
  13. The Last Song