Format: CD / Label: Def Jam Recordings
“That Rihanna rain just won’t let up,” declaims Rihanna in probably the finest of several triumphalist boasts on her fourth album. It works on several levels. There’s the sheer elemental power of it, Rihanna cast as nothing less than a force of nature. There’s the imperial homophone, Rihanna’s reign over pop reaffirmed and her domain marked out. And then there’s what that ceaseless rain represents: the very public storm that has been Rihanna’s life for the past ten months, since Chris Brown brutally beat her up on the eve of the Grammy Awards – but also her own regrowth, both personal and artistic. At heart, Rated R is about the reconstruction of Rihanna.
It is a self-consciously dark work: there is wounded, aching balladry; there are brutalist dubstep tracks, courtesy of Chase & Status; there is the trepidation-fuelling promise of The-Dream working with Slash; there are many, many climactic guitar solos. Throughout, there is a patina of edginess which suggests that Rihanna is fishing hard for those Grace Jones comparisons. Nonetheless, it is a stunningly coherent album. Those dubstep experiments could easily have been as ill-advised as recent missteps into the genre from Snoop Dogg and Eve, but their portentous, grinding feel is a perfect fit for the album’s forbidding mood. Rihanna’s braggadocio is tough and resilient, and she revels in her explicit aggression enough for her newfound love of cursing and violent imagery not to grate. “No pain is forever – yup, you know this,” she snaps on the immense, Jacksons-interpolating ‘Hard’; “I’m such a fucking lady,” she sneers on ‘Wait Your Turn’ in a reference to that gulliest of female rappers, Remy Ma.
Later in that song, she emphasises and elongates her Bajan vowels, bringing to mind the British Jamaican MCs who originally vocalled dubstep beats; more than ever on Rated R, Rihanna uses the grit and grain of her low alto – which has never been a typical R&B voice – for dramatic effect. Her shivering sigh as she opens ‘G4L’ with the line “I lick the gun when I’m done, cuz I know that revenge is sweet” is chilling; throughout the album, she repeats mantras that initially seem underwritten, but whose unrelenting, confrontational strength ultimately dares you to deny their power.
“If anything, Rihanna ventures into even darker territory when she reveals her vulnerability…”
If anything, Rihanna ventures into even darker territory when she reveals her vulnerability. Lead single ‘Russian Roulette’ is a stately death march in its verses and a full-on musical setpiece in its chorus. If anything, its grisly schlock and unsettlingly literal video only serve to intensify its impact. ‘Stupid in Love’ shines an unflinching, self-berating spotlight on to the trauma of an unhealthy relationship; penned by Ne-Yo three days before the Grammy incident, Rihanna has called it a “premonition”.
Elsewhere, she delves into engrossing, complicated and deeply odd narratives. The Latin-tinged ‘Te Amo’ is, sonically, probably the lightest song on Rated R, but its beach vibe is a deserted, nighttime one; in it, a confused, compassionate Rihanna rejects the lesbian advances of a woman for whom she dances. Meanwhile the astonishing ‘Fire Bomb’, all wind machines and ’80s stadium rock guitars, finds Rihanna in a car on the brink of burning up, hell bent on destruction – speeding towards her boyfriend’s house in order to take him with her in the ensuing detonation. It’s catharsis, revenge and romance rolled into one, an act of relationship jihad that seals the dyad together forever, Thelma & Louise style. It also possesses the most thrilling explosion of a chorus in pop this year, Rihanna imperiously commanding, “The lovers need to clear the road” – a brilliantly ambiguous lyric disguised as an anthemic slogan.
Rihanna is not the first superstar to have made a deliberately difficult album; Rated R is the latest in a proud history of implausibly cold, alienated and deeply personal works that includes Madonna’s Erotica, Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope and, more recently, Kelly Clarkson’s My December and Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak. What makes Rated R impressive and important beyond its captivating music is the way, against the usual rules of our current panoptic age, that Rihanna has seized back control of her public story. It follows her giving one of the most nuanced, impressive and inspirational interviews on domestic violence that any public figure has given – one that saw calls to the US National Domestic Violence Hotline increase by 73% in the days following it. On Rated R, Rihanna does not shy away from the ways in which she has been broken down – but ultimately this honesty reaffirms her own agency and the audacious way in which she rebuilds herself, all impenetrable granite and steel.