Rihanna Rated R

[Island Def Jam; 2009]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: R&B, mainstream pop
Others: Cassie, P!nk, Beyoncé

On 2007's Good Girl Gone Bad, Rihanna proved able and willing to shirk her genre's cloying over-reliance on sentimentality and vocal histrionics. Rated R, however, confirms that Good Girl Gone Bad was something of a lean, cohesive anomaly within the Barbados diva's scattershot oeuvre. Recorded in the wake of the most famous domestic violence case of recent memory, Rated R practically shouts its subtext over surprisingly conventional R&B music, making it especially tempting to interpret the increased reliance on conventionality as a response to her trauma, a return to the safe arms of pop orthodoxy.

But considering Rihanna's public woes, her new affectation was all but inevitable. Rated R is rife with lyrical/musical dissonance, pairing her decidedly more aggressive attitude with a relatively unadventurous collection of songs. On “Fire Bomb” -- one of the only songs seemingly pre-destined for ubiquity -- she marries overwrought lines like "I just wanna set you on fire/ So I don't have to burn alone" to a featherweight soft-rock template. The approach is successful from a pop perspective, but less so from an artistic standpoint. Earworms care little about incongruence, which is a matter left for the critics and theorists to scrutinize.

And speaking of criticism and theory, the disconnection between thematic content and form brings Barthes to mind. Rated R seems so anchored to a specific text that it weighs the album down with biographical association. However, freed from the authorial perspective, the album can be better appreciated for what it is, namely a better-than-average pop album. Its closest relation is perhaps P!nk's admirable, but mostly forgotten Try This: both albums strike subculture poses, while only intermittently committing to a correspondent musical shift; both also hide their artists' most triumphant and distinctive songs within decent, but toothless filler.

But even when actively rejecting the obvious narrative, Rated R has its flaws. Whereas Good Girl Gone Bad satisfied with its near-total lack of balladry, Rated R is split evenly between club-bangers and slow-burners. That balanced ratio causes the album to drag at times; had “Te Amo” -- an Ibizian bit of sapphic role-playing -- been relegated to an iTunes bonus track, the record would progress that much more briskly. And while “Stupid In Love” is satisfyingly old-school, a kiss off set to fingersnaps and a simple piano melody, its lyrics are too inarticulate to satisfy on any level. It bears noting, however, that the ballads -- in the past, her weakest suit -- display a wider vocal range than is expected from the notoriously flat singer.

The soggier moments might disrupt Rated R's flow, but they're also limited enough to not dampen enjoyment altogether. Rihanna has failed to match the consistency of her previous album, but she's succeeded by nearly every other measure. Even the Will.I.Am-assisted “Photographs” is better than it has any right to be, functioning well within the post-808s & Heartbreak urban synth-pop landscape. In fact, taken as a context-less product, Rated R's pleasures are many, from unintentionally hilarious boasts like "I'm such a fucking lady," to the dubstep inflection that creeps into songs like “G4L” and “Wait Your Turn,” to the flagrant and audacious Phil Collins mimicry of “Cold Case Love.”

Disappointment will likely be the consensus on Rated R. While that opinion wouldn't be incorrect, it would be narrow. Rihanna has released a flawed album that may shrink under the weight of her biography, but it also succeeds when approached more directly, superficially: the author here is -- at most -- secondary to the material. Of course, Rihanna cannot be completely divorced from her record, and as a result her narrative is now set for an impending, triumphal return-to-form; this also means that Rated R arrives ready for reconsideration. Luckily, all critical over-thinking aside, disappointment rarely comes in as satisfying a package as Rated R.

1. Mad House
2. Wait Your Turn
3. Hard
4. Stupid In Love
5. ROCKSTAR 101
6. Russian Roulette
7. Fire Bomb
8. Rude Boy
9. Photographs
10. G4L
11. Te Amo
12. Cold Case Love
13. The Last Song

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