wears the trousers magazine

rihanna: rated r (2009)
November 25, 2009, 12:31 pm
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , ,

Rated R •••

There comes a time in every pop artist’s career when people start to focus more on the tabloid aspects of their private life and less on their music. For Rihanna, this was the case earlier this year after a very public assault by her then boyfriend Chris Brown prior to the Grammy Awards. For a time it appeared as though the controversy would engulf both of their careers, but Rihanna has since started to put it all behind her and put her energy into creating music. Rated R will never be completely free from the shadow of those events, and various lyrical references – though oblique at the best of times – could be interpreted to fit the paradigm of ‘vengeful woman’. What is quite clear from the outset, however, is that Rated R is full of anger and vitriol, though neither is directed overtly at the man the baying media have pinned up on a dartboard on her behalf.

Fans of Rihanna’s hugely successful Good Girl Gone Bad may find themselves at a loss with the abrasive R&B on offer here as the pop palette and finely crafted melodies of her previous album are replaced by hard-edged beats, pulsating bass, cold synths and sneering vocals. Rihanna had originally wanted to adopt a rockier sound for Rated R, making the kind of R&B to rock transition P!nk managed on her breakout album Missundaztood, but when record execs had a collective aneurysm over her decision to work with Paramore and Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme, things headed towards an edgy R&B sound. Still, for all intents and purposes, Rated R is a rock album sans (for the most part) guitars. But on songs like ‘Rockstar 101’, with its dull refrain of “I’m a rockstar /…big city, white lights / sleep all day, up all night”, Rihanna simply comes across as a try-hard, attempting to convince herself more than the listener of this dubious position.

What is perhaps most disturbing about Rated R is Rihanna’s sudden predilection for violence and guns, which seems vastly inappropriate considering she’s a victim of violence herself. Songs like first single ‘Russian Roulette’, a rather over-cooked R&B ballad with lyrics like “If you play, you play for keeps / take a gun and count to three”, and ‘G4L (Gangster For Life)’ have the singer posturing as a renegade and, most worryingly, irresponsibly glamorising gang culture. Elsewhere, the stuttering ‘Wait Your Turn’ boasts “I pitch with a grenade / swing away if you’re feeling brave / there’s so much power in my name” with the same streak of hard heartedness, displaying Rihanna’s supercilious vocals at their worst. Even ‘Hard’ – perhaps one of the best tracks on the album with its Jackson Five ‘Can You Feel It?’ sample – is full of boastful lyrics about being famous and invincible over bombastic beats and bass, ultimately sounding rather unconvincing and needlessly confrontational.

The ballads are usually Rihanna’s forte, but even here the attempts at emotion seem artificial. ‘Stupid In Love’ perhaps contains the most direct references to her relationship with Brown, but it lacks any real feeling. ‘Fire Bomb’ has a similarly nauseating effect, with a chorus melody that sounds as though it was composed on a vacuum cleaner. Will.i.am’s guest spot on ‘Photographs’ proves that The Black Eyed Peas are only capable of writing one song and constantly rehashing it. It’s only on the StarGate-produced “Rude Boy’ that we finally get a taste of the Rihanna of old, an electro-R&B romp full of juddering synths and one of the album’s most infectious choruses, while the Justin Timberlake co-write ‘Cold Case Love’ finally delivers on the ballad front, with a strong melodic structure and wonderfully understated arrangement.

Had more of the material on Rated R been crafted by such hands then Rihanna would have a follow-up album worthy of the same success as Good Girl Gone Bad. Reinventing one’s sound is always a creative risk; for Rihanna, the pay off is compromised as the pop sensibility that once adorned her music becomes conspicuous by its absence. Rated R is no dud by any means – there are enough strong songs to continue her streak of hits – but it may well be that she has painted herself into a sonic corner that she will have great difficulty stepping out of.

P. Viktor
UK release date: 23/11/09; www.myspace.com/rihanna


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