If Rihanna hadn't committed to 'going bad' on her last album, then she's fully embraced the transformation for her dark fourth album, Rated R, showcasing her desire for aphotic scenery, disheartening atmosphere and foul-mouthed endeavours through a moody blend of electro-pop, rock and R&B. First impressions were, following the whole Chris Brown scandal, the demeaning shift in sound could have been good for her, but the whole move is rather hit-and-miss. Rated R doesn't have the likability of Good Girl Gone Bad, however more edgy and solid than her first two albums thus dampening the pop appeal that had made her career in the last two years such a breakthrough. Good Girl successfully broadened her appeal, earning her new fans who appreciated her fun blend of pop, R&B and her occasional rock-influenced work ("Shut Up and Drive").
So is this a failure? Well, like my recent review of Leona Lewis' second album, Echo, Rated R is pretty comparison-worthy. Like Kelly Clarkson--after releasing her highly successful second album, Breakway, dubbed one of the best pop albums of the decade, she followed it up with the more dark and personal, My December, which was considerably less-successful and didn't fair well with fans and critics either, accused of detouring away too far from the lighthearted pop/rock of Breakway. Similarly, Rated R achieves the same thing, whilst there are still some pop and R&B influences (which will most likely be overlooked as there's not many), ultimately Rihanna's departure from the pop of her last album is apparent.
I respect Rihanna for embracing change, there's no better sign of true artistry as when an artist takes a risk or showcases versatility, which is what is making me appreciate this album even more--even despite not every single song being an instant knockout. Unlike Good Girl, Rated R didn't have its "Umbrella" to garner enough attention for it. The unnerving ballad "Russian Roulette" scored Rihanna her tenth top 10, reaching #9--however was considered to have ultimately failed as a lead single (If you say so). The pulsating ballad doesn't open the album, however planted in the middle, its the center-point of the project, setting the lurid tone of the album.
After the brief "Mad House" opener, a organ-driven interlude, with a Michael Jackson "Thriller" reminiscent ambiance as a haunting deep voice repeatedly says ("welcome to the madhouse") before the darkening bass line kicks in and we're introduced to Rihanna's introductory vocalizing, which leads into the first track "Wait Your Turn" (which sould be called "The Wait is Over") a downbeat, bass driven piece with eletronic undertones as Rihanna big's herself up on the verses ("there's so much power in my name"/"I'm such a fuckin' lady") boasting her star-power, a surprising burst of confidence that was hidden for the first four years of her career. I like the up-turn in the chorus and the hook, as the synth-lines ascend to the forefront and the melody avails a lighter tone, a false sense of hope that her dark mood will be letting up any time soon.
The next track "Hard" is so strong, even the Young Jeezy feature isn't a big deal. It's a swaggering number, compact with consistent drums, poignant piano-keys and a brewing bass line that keeps the song down-beat. Following is piano-driven "Stupid in Love" a possible re-telling of the trials and tribulations of Rihanna and Chris Brown--the lyrics, especially on the verses are raw, she explains: "blood on your hands and still you insist on repeatedly trying to tell me lies"/"I thought I saw your potential, guess that's what made me dumb." If it wasn't for the 808 drum machine in the chorus, it would have sounded much more heartfelt and endearing as she eludes such passion within her vocal as proclaims: "I may be dumb but I'm not stupid" never quite distinguishing the difference between "dumb" and "stupid," however leaving you with a thought.
Strutting "Rockstar 101" thumps a slick beat-driven composition, supporting a tasteful electronic guitar undergoing the grits of the song, possibly finding Rihanna at her most reluctantly confident, similar is "G4L" (abbreviated from "Gangsta for Life") which is just as confident, however very miserably composed--opening lyrics: "I lick the gun when I'm done 'cause I know that revenge is sweet," an obvious indication to the listener that their in for a blackening next 3 minutes. This is probably my least favorite track on here, she's throwing as many curse-words out there as she possibly can, but I don't find it convincing and it climaxes to an unbearable state of depression where she repeats: "We got our guns in the motherfucking air." The chorus is messy, however I like the rapid synths that mud over her vocals but that's about it. Following is "Te Amo" which attempts to change the darkening mood--with its Spanish-influenced sound, with strings, rapid hand-claps and light bass intact however it doesn't quite work.
Some '80s influences come into call on "Fire Bomb," beginning with a gushing electronic guitar, a brief entrance of orchestration before the bass kicks in, dubbing down as the piano keys and vocal enter. It's very Leona Lewis-styled pop/rock, but still very fitting. I like this a lot. Following is skittering, Jamaican hip-hop influenced "Rude Boy" which finds Rihanna at her most loose (no sexual-puns intended) although the sexual-references do contribute to its slightly change up in the aphotic mood so far. Will.I.am makes an appearance on the subtle "Photographs" which pulses with strings then transform to a more retro sound when the drums kick in.
If she didn't have quite enough to say, the last two tracks are surely packed with lyrics for thought. First of the two "Cold Case Love" once again hints relationship talk as she belts: "Your love was breaking the law, but I needed a witness"/"Will it ever be solved or am I taking the fall" on the chorus. The song is a slow burner (it's 6 minutes long), however eventually rises to a climatic, which eludes hart hitting-drums, effective beat-box noises, an electronic guitar and a stunning moments of orchestration. Closing the album is the aptly titled "The Last Song" which goes for the same climatic sound as "Cold Case Love," however maybe not as effectively. As the title implies, the song concludes the dark chapter of her life, which should hopefully mean a lighter fifth album.
I appreciate Rihanna for sticking with her guns, taking a risk and releasing the album she wanted, even if the shift in sound wasn't quite full-proof. I'm not convinced she's as down-in-the dumps as she claims. Her potty mouth, especially in "G4L" is really not convincing, maybe more of a brief stunt of a... Good girl going bad and returning to prominence a year later.
Best: Russian Roulette, Stupid in Love, Hard, Wait Your Turn, Fire Bomb, Rude Boy, Photographs, Cold Case Love