When all is said and written about the career of Rihanna, we’ll all look back and remember exactly where we were on the evening of February 8, 2009. It was the night of the Grammys, and for Rihanna and then boyfriend R&B/pop powerhouse Chris Brown, it was to be a special night. Brown, to perform with American Idol winner Jordin Sparks and likely win a Grammy or two for their duet on “No Air,” and Rihanna? Well, her Good Girl Gone Bad album had become the one that made her a household name, as now, a platinum selling artist literally worldwide, it was a night to ascend to the throne as THE pop diva. But that didn’t happen. Brown and Rihanna engaged in a harrowing altercation, one that destroyed a relationship, their ability to make their Grammy appearances, and in many minds, their careers. Undeterred by such a notion, Rihanna releases Rated R her fourth studio album on November 23rd, one of the more anticipated releases of the fourth quarter holiday season. It’s a dark, defiant and downright angry Rihanna on this record, appearing ready to fight a world that turned their back on her, and heaped pity, scorn and ridicule upon her life and situation.
Clocking in at 53 minutes, this album is fantastic on many levels. Yes, it’s completely exploitative of her situation, but there’s an incongruous charm and pluck in her angst that doesn’t really leave the listener sullied by listening to a record filled with the entirely too intense thoughts of a young woman in peril. Kudos in this situation must be given to the production team on this record, namely the super duo of Ne-Yo and Chuck Harmony, who like Motown legends Eddie Holland,Jr., Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier are becoming the true emotive sound of a generation. As well, involved here is The-Dream, who in this reviewer’s eyes is on a legendary hot streak, and his particular sensitivity to the co-mingling of lyric and expression make him a stellar choice to be present on this release. Justin Timberlake’s team The Y’s are here too, as JT is easily getting his feet wet, but has a timeless, Memphis honed, Issac Hayes and Willie Mitchell studied quality to him that adds gravitas. But the real surprise here is the presence of London dubstep duo Chase and Status, who literally add an extra star to the quality of this production as the haunting and terrifying wobbly basslines add an effect of sheer terror and fright to this recording that makes Rihanna’s proclamations exceedingly reality based.
“Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you who are easily frightened, we suggest you turn away now!” Rihanna’s album opens with this proclamation over some particularly face melting dubstep, and if you don’t, you get to hear easily some of the most empowered, foul mouthed and quotable lyricism over next level production of the year. On the fantastic dubbed out pop of “Wait Your Turn,” she’s “such a fuckin’ lady.” On “Rockstar 101,” with Guns and Roses’ Slash laying soaring licks, she’s “got her middle finger up, I don’t really give a fuck.” I’m not arguing that Rihanna was ever up for consideration as a sanctified diva with angel wings, but such brusque language shocks and appalls the ears, and definitely makes the listener aware this is a woman who has matured, changed, is a little tired, and certainly worn out. It’s as if she’s removed her eyelashes, fingernails, makeup, extensions, contacts and every other acoutrement of beauty, and is staring at you as the hospital photograph of the most unfortunate evening of her life.
Radio single “Russian Roulette” is the album’s finest moment. Chuck Harmony and Ne-Yo create a rising, triumphant track with insistent tom tom drums that fade into a bass pattern reminiscent of the heartbeat of the hopeful and strong woman singing the song. Matching lyric to track is a noted skill of the duo, and when Rihanna states that she hopes “her life will see another sunrise,” well, you really and sincerely hope it. The song ending with her game of Russian Roulette meeting a tragic end as the track suddenly fades? Well, that’s easily the albums darkest moment, indelible reality striking down the unrepentant hope of one of the year’s largest singles.
Follow up single “Hard” is a true winner. Featuring Young Jeezy, it’s near perfect, as everything combines to create a song that never stops winning. The-Dream’s is at his most deliberate, bratty, catty and most emotive of femininity in his songwriting here, with lines like “tougher than a lion, ain’t no need in tryin’, I live where the sky ends…yep…you know this” emptying out of Rihanna as this feels like where the pain and agony really fades and the “motherfucker, I’ll be okay, just watch me” period begins. This makes the song a champion, and shows Rihanna to have the talent and depth of an industry veteran who knows how to step up to a track and concept and completely smash it out of the park.
The other winner here is Justin Timberlake’s songwriting and Rihanna’s performance on “Cold Case Love,” where JT lets his feelings on the Chris Brown/Rihanna situation be known in a song that is as much heartfelt heartstring tugger as it is hug from friend to friend. The violins, piano and breaks here are so understated and emotive that as Rihanna starts to really delve into the lyric, the frown become as weep and evolves into a cry, as you see the woman, not the celebrity, and the healing begins.
To understand the nature of this album as catharsis is to understand where this album approaches yet does not achieve success as well. “Rude Boy,” a track ostensibly about debauched rebound sex, doesn’t necessarily win as much as it creates unease in the listener, as an emotionally damaged woman giving so freely of her body in a carnal manner is yes, very real, but also, possibly more painful than needs to be explored on record. “G4L” advocates rolling up on Chris Brown and slaying him in a gangland shooting. Yes, this will be a song that every woman will love and really enjoy on a conceptual level, and it’s complete absurdity really does flesh out the emotion and passion of Rihanna in her most vulnerable of moments, but it may be a bit too much for an album.
Rihanna’s going to be okay. Rated R may set a standard for shamed, abused and angered female expression in the same manner as Marvin Gaye’s ode to the pain of divorce, Here My Dear. The production standard on this album is incredible, as for a release of this nature, it certainly needed to be of a level of excellence not achieved in R & B in some time. The darkest hour is just before dawn. Clearly, for Rihanna after this record, these are only a few seconds left.
4.5 OUT OF FIVE STARS