The buzz around decade-defining pop hit Umbrella has petered out and it’s due time that, post-assault, a hardened Rihanna comes out fighting in dominatrix attire but with an added aura of vulnerability. Hundreds of producers and songwriters (most notably Chase & Status) have worked with the Barbados-born superstar to make her most adult work to date in Rated R.
Since last time there’s been a drastic progression from lollipop-licking pop princess to damaged good in Rihanna’s image and sound. Rated R always seems to harbour the intention of being a provocative work of pop, disguising its accessibility in sharp guitar licks and plentiful use of expletives. It’s fuelled by controversy and kiss-and-tell, and it thrives in its position as an album that was always going to be interesting and talked-about after The Chris Brown Scandal.
And in that was an opportunity for Rihanna to come out fighting with real venom, a “get back up again” determination; as such, Rated R could have been all dark corners and in-your-face temper. Then, we might have had a classic on our hands. Instead we have an album that opts to cater for the variety of fans that flock to support Rihanna in her time of trouble. It’s a diverse work. But this so happens to be its biggest setback.
There’s also a dubious inclusion of Guns ‘n Roses guitarist Slash in Rockstar 101, adding bulk to the odd choice of nailing guitar-centered self-indulgence at the very heart of the record. But where this record really stumbles is in its dithering indecision. A lack of cohesive direction runs right through it, from squeaky, regret-ridden ballads Stupid In Love and contrastingly doom-laden Russian Roulette, we move onto the monotonous, beat heavy Rockstar 101 and Fire Bomb. When a decent vibe is mustered up by dance grooves in Rude Boy, the pace is then instantly set back to default with acoustic slow-burner Photographs, in which Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am takes centre stage.
Obviously the advantage of moving from something as dark as G4L onto the immaculately innofensive latino number Te Amo is that it gives Rihanna a healthy position when it comes to releasing singles. For sure there’s many a potential hit in this album; Rude Boy in particular, a song that borrows Cut Copy dance jolts and adds them onto an infectious shout-out-loud chorus. Wherever the tide of public opinion turns over the next 12 months, it’s likely that Rated R will be able to unleash a suitable single accordingly.
Whilst the context surrounding this much-awaited album is dealt with in the gloomy outlook of much of its constituent parts, the ultimate damage Rihanna faced isn’t used to give this record a handicap. Yes, it’s more than touched upon over the course of Rated R, stopping short of the point at which she might demand a sympathy vote. It’s an album that can stand on its own two feet and makes a point of doing so. It’s more defiant than defeated.
Rated R feels like that push of upper body strength to lift Rihanna up from the ground and back into the realms of where she belongs. Quite significantly, it even manages at times to allow a celebrated artist back into prime position with exemplary displays of catchy pop. Nevertheless, it’s the work of an artist still growing and maturing in opposition to a frightening event that could have forced a less courageous star to disappear from the public eye.