Tuesday, 4 October 2016

RIHANNA: Rated R (2009)

With the re-release of Good Girl Gone Bad in 2008, Rihanna commenced a frenetic period of recording and touring that would climax with 2012's Unapologetic.  Released at the end of 2009, Rated R came out on the heels of revelations about the physical abuse she had suffered at the hands of then-boyfriend Chris Brown.

I remember when this one came out because of the Chris Brown stuff and because it was the first time Rihanna underwent a major style change. However, before I listened to it I was drawing a blank. I  could not remember a single song off of this album. Even though I’m not that familiar with her other work, I can associate a song or two with her other albums. While I’d heard Rated R was great, looking at the track list I could not recognise a single song.

Anyway, on with the review. 

The first thing to say is that, for an ostensible concept album, it does not feature the obvious bloat of similar projects — songs average 3-4 minutes, and the track list is only 13 songs (12 if you ignore the opening vignette).  

‘Wait Your Turn’ and ‘Hard’ are darker and harsher than anything on her previous albums — the beats sound rather industrial or trance-like. When combined with Rihanna’s flat delivery and the repetitive lyrics, this sound is rather oppressive — it’s like ‘anti-dance’ music. As scene-setting for the shift from the pop sound of her previous album these tracks work, but as songs in their own right, there’s not much to talk about.

‘Stupid In Love’ changes things up by pulling back on the harder synths in favour of piano and finger snaps. This allows the listener (or just my old ears) to concentrate on the lyrics. While vaguely a romantic ballad, the lyrics act as a monologue about leaving a bad relationship. It’s hard not to see parallels with Rihanna’s personal life, but the lyrics are not explicit enough to make that clear. That aside, the song is good.

‘Rockstar 101’ features guitarist Slash, although you have to listen hard to pick out his contributions — he is swamped by the industrial/trance/EDM elements. 

‘Russian Roulette’ is a similar proposition to ‘Stupid in Love’, in that it uses the form of a ballad to explore themes of entrapment and alienation. If you were to pick out a song that shows Rihanna at her best, this is a great example. This song, as with most of her best work, is based trying to hide pain -- when Rihanna oscillates between her natural reserve and something more exposed, it makes for a great song

The thing that used to put me off about her was how disinterested and detached her vocals were. It made songs like ‘Umbrella’ — a good song— feel monotonous and flat. I never bothered to listen to most of her songs all the way through, which created the impression that she was nothing special. Thanks to these reviews, I’ve gained a real appreciation for Rihanna’s vocal skills. 

She’s good at letting just a hint of emotion into her delivery — listening to one of her songs feels like pulling a rubber band back until its reached the breaking point. And then her voice will break and the full force of the song hits you right between the eyes. It’s an underrated quality she has. 

I’m going to skip right over ‘Fire Bomb’ because I don’t get it — I’ve listened to it three times and still cannot make head or tail of it.

‘Rude Boy’ feels like a response to all the songs by male singers and rappers in which they brag about their sexual expertise. In this song, Rihanna is calling them on their misogyny, turning their aggression on them.

‘Photographs’ continues the running theme of Rihanna lamenting on the collapse of a bad relationship. A duet with will.i.am (bizarrely auto-tuned), it’s a melancholy number that sticks in the mind long after it’s done. 

‘G4L’ was boring. It just sounded like bits and pieces from the other songs on the album put in a blender. There is just nothing interesting or distinctive about it.

‘Te Amo’ is Rihanna doing bossa nova. Kinda. The song is about Rihanna dealing with being the object of another woman’s affections. After the grief she’s had with the opposite sex in the last couple songs, it makes for a nice change of pace. The music video resolves the conflict of the song by having the singer fall for her mysterious paramour (played by Laetitia Casta, the French supermodel).  

‘Cold Case Love’ is rather minimalist in comparison with most of the songs on Rated R, before escalating to a crescendo at the finale, with the addition of a guitar solo, string section, drums and processed beats. It works pretty well, sounding almost like her take on ‘In The Air Tonight’. 

‘The Last Song’ sounds exactly like the title. I don’t know who did the guitar parts on this album, but whoever it is is doing a terrific job. It really makes me hope that Rihanna does a rock album eventually.

Overall, Rated R was pretty good. It was not as immediately appealing as Good Girl Gone Bad Reloaded, and some of the electronica was grating, but the shift in tone and lyrics was welcome and gave the album more weight than its predecessor. 

Previous reviews

Music of the Sun 

A Girl like Me 

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