There was a time that Rihanna and Chris Brown seemed a golden couple in the pop world. They were singers hitting the top of the charts while still teens and drawing critical accolades for their immense potential as artists. The fact they were romantic partners seemed a bit of a fairytale largely avoiding scrutiny of tabloids. Then domestic violence entered the picture, and we all realized there was a truly dark side to this picture. Now Rihanna has bravely returned to take us all on a musical tour of the wreckage from her point of view.
Relentless, Uncompromising and Dark
Despite the opening track "Mad House," this album isn't so much a tour through a theatrical horror show as it is a brittle, uncompromising look at the aftermath of love ending in violence. Rated R feels like a house just shrouded in darkness for room after room. The furnishings are sparse and the few pictures on the wall are of faces devoid of emotion except for lines etched by the experience of pain. There is strength in a song like "Wait Your Turn" exclaiming, "The wait is ova," but there is no feeling of joy. The protagonist of "Rockstar 101" will never be weak, but there is no assurance she will ever be happy either. "Russian Roulette" brutally remembers living in fear in a relationship that could end any moment like a random shot from a gun.
Rihanna's Consistent Artistic Integrity
The consistent mood in vocals, instrumentation and lyrics on Rated R is impressive. The last time a major mainstream pop star explored personal darkness with such an unflinching eye over the course of an album was on Kelly Clarkson's stunning My December. Rihanna seems unconcerned here about commercial success. She even seems uninterested in any particular enjoyment from her listeners. She is here to lay bare the emotions and experiences she was forced to bear. It is both a musical cautionary tale, and a depiction that survival is possible. Some of the vocals here, particularly on the powerful "Cold Case Love" are among the most beautiful Rihanna has yet recorded, but they are in the service of a very dark, bleak statement.
Top Tracks on 'Rated R'
- "Wait Your Turn"
- "Stupid In Love"
- "Russian Roulette"
- "Rude Boy"
- "Cold Case Love"
Will Rated R be a musical catharsis for Rihanna? Is she a survivor who will be ready to return to something less foreboding the next time around? Rated R is so relentless that it is impossible to uncover many examples of looking forward. Rihanna is casting a coldly observant eye to the present. Survival and testimony are what are on her mind. Ultimately, there may be a weakness here in that it is hard to imagine wanting to return frequently to any of these songs. We are given little here to truly hold on to as the pocket of warmth in a chilly chilly world. For now, though, this is a fascinating document and one well worth hearing. Rihanna's pain is both a warning about what can happen and stern statement that survival is possible.
Released November 2009 by Def Jam