Grade = B
By TJ for Neon Limelight
Two things happened when Rihanna released her third album, entitled Good Girl Gone Bad, in 2007: she finally made an album that was listenable from start to finish, and she propelled herself into the pop star to watch, and if you’re one of her pop peers, to fear.
The easiest thing to do to make sure she continued on the road to pop glory, which she paved with a number of chart-topping, danceable, sing-a-long-able singles is to try and duplicate the sound that brought her so much success.
On her new album, Rated R, Rihanna gives that notion two black fingernail-painted middle fingers.
Less concerned with blessing the world with more effervescent dance ditties, the 21-year-old is more concerned with telling the story of her fairytale romance turned very public tragedy in the most honest, raw, and curse word-laden way possible.
The first clear sign of this is her decision to release the dark and metaphoric “Russian Roulette,” written by longtime collaborator and lablemate Ne-Yo, as the lead single. The song fits in no radio format, there’s no catchy hook, and without explanation, the song’s true meaning — in the game of love, someone will eventually get hurt, but you play anyway — could easily get lost, but it’s clearly one of the most personal and meaningful songs for Rihanna.
She pulls another frequent collaborator out of her back pocket in the form of Justin Timberlake to pen one the the set’s many stand out tracks, “Cold Case Love.” The lyrics are as powerful as they come: “What you did to me was a crime/Cold case love/And I let you reach me one more time/But that’s enough,” Rihanna sings in a haunting, emotion-drenched tone, as the production becomes more layered with each verse.
Rated R isn’t all heavy, though. As emotional and heartbroken as Rihanna is in these songs, she’s just as bad-ass and arrogant in songs like “Hard” featuring Jeezy (”But the hottest bitch in heels right here”), “Wait Your Turn” (”There’s so much power in my name, if you pop up and ya say it, stadium gon’ do the wave”) and “Rockstar 101″ (”Got my middle finger up/I don’t really give a f-ck”) where former Guns N Roses guitarist Slash lends his credibility. She even has a little fun flaunting her sexuality on the Caribbean-kissed “Rude Boy” (”Tonight Imma give it to ya harder/Tonight Imma turn your body out”).
Like “Rude Boy,” the will.i.am-produced and featured track “Photographs” will play the most to fans of Rihanna’s top 40 hits. The lyrics tell the story of the sadness over the ending of a relationship and having nothing but photographic reminders to hold on to, but the spacey electronic beat gives it a radio-ready boost. The downside, though, is Rihanna’s identity is lost in will.i.am’s production. It’s far too easy to hear his Black Eyed Peas bandmate Fergie singing it with the same result. But that one minor hiccup hardly disturbs the song or the rest of the album.
Rated R is not an easy pill to swallow for fans hoping Rihanna would deliver Good Girl Gone Bad the sequel, but it should be appreciated and revered as an album that shows the growth of an artist who is no longer a good girl gone bad, but a woman with a real story to tell.