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Album review: Rihanna's 'Rated R'

RIHANNA_RATED_R Judging by the arc of her still-young career, Rihanna is not what you'd call a "girl's girl." She began her professional ascent when, at 15, she dumped the gal pals in her vocal trio and moved to the U.S. to be closer to her male producer. Her mentor is hip-hop father figure Jay-Z; her main association with another female artist was with his longtime companion, Beyoncé, when rumors (later disproved) of a tryst between the younger singer and the mogul set the two up as rivals.

Her image evokes a style of female empowerment that predates and still stands outside of feminism: the lone female warrior who summons strength and endures danger to make progress in a man's world.

So it's ironic that, of all young female pop stars, it was Rihanna who became the subject of a classic feminist concern after an assault at the hand of her then-boyfriend, Chris Brown. At first she seemed unwilling (or unable) to embrace the role of advocate that's often assumed by prominent survivors of domestic violence, but apparently her sense of responsibility toward young women is what motivated her to finally leave Brown.

"Rated R," the album that will forever be viewed as Rihanna's statement on Brown's attack and her recovery, bears that burden of responsibility, but in a way that has little to do with conventional expressions of female liberation. Unlike Beyonce, who has an all-female band, or Christina Aguilera, who's often collaborated with the songwriter Linda Perry, or even Britney Spears, who's made a big show of being Madonna's inheritor, Rihanna still prefers working with men.

Aside from two songwriters who seem less than primary (one, Ester Dean, actually had a recent hit collaborating with Brown), the tracks here come from male producers and co-songwriters.

As much as it's a personal statement from Rihanna, "Rated R" also reflects how several of pop's male major players -- including Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake, The-Dream, Tricky Stewart, will.i.am -- responded to her accounts of what happened between her and Brown, and how she's moved on from the incident. (She's said in interviews that talking about it with her collaborators helped her work through the experience and turn it into art.) 

RIHANNA_AMA_AP

This fact might not make the album a typical example of what feminist intellectuals call "praxis," but it does make it a complex and fascinating portrait of a young woman's emotional process after enduring abuse.

"Rated R" belongs to that lonely figure, a self-styled X-Girl taken aback by her own vulnerability. After an intro that immediately cops to its maker's agitation -- it's called "Mad House" -- the album unfolds in quick turns, alternating acts of aggression with confessions of sorrow and confusion.

Searching for strength, Rihanna and her collaborators take on musical styles historically prone to machismo: hard rock, which Rihanna dons like a form of couture, and dancehall reggae, which she knows well but uses here in new ways. Images of violence abound: There are guns, grenades, girl gangs, crashing cars and smashed bodies on the football field.

Rihanna puts on her tough voice for these songs, settling into her lower register with a fierce frown. "The only thing I'm missing is a black guitar," she growls in the Dream-and-Stewart produced "Rockstar 101," her heavy modulation making clear that she can definitely get by without that ultimate rock phallic symbol. (Slash's presence, playing one, feels like an afterthought.)

If her black-leather moves sometimes feel like a pose meant to shore up her confidence, Rihanna's Caribbean outings on "Rated R" carry more weight. It's rarely discussed that the Bajan native is probably the biggest star that region has produced in recent years, surpassing the Puerto Rican Ricky Martin, the Haitian Wyclef Jean and Jamaicans like Shaggy and Sean Paul.

For a female artist to represent Caribbean pop worldwide means something, especially since the male-dominated and homophobic dance-hall reggae scene has been a driving force within it for decades.

The ragamuffin-style "Rude Boy" takes on one such character in a come-on that's really a devastating taunt. Even as she offers herself in no uncertain terms -- "I'm gon' let you be the captain tonight," she sneers -- she questions his prowess. "Can you get it up? Are you big enough?" she repeats in the singsong chorus, making it tough to imagine that any suitor could rise to this occasion.

("Te Amo," a tribute to "La Isla Bonita"-era Madonna that recounts a lesbian dance-floor interlude, also seems aimed at dance-hall's value system, with Rihanna singing in her thickest island accent that she understands and accepts this paramour's desires, though she doesn't reciprocate.)

Rihanna always has been good at posing tough; it's tenderness that's harder, now, for her to negotiate. "Russian Roulette," the stunning first single from "Rated R," is a big, chrome-plated ballad in the style of Dusty Springfield, but its ruling metaphor -- love as a fatal but willingly played game -- has proved tough for some listeners to accept. I think Rihanna is exceptionally brave in this song and others on "Rated R," exposing the wide range of emotions and impulses that must have afflicted her after her breakup with Brown.

She isn't blaming the victim on "Russian Roulette" or on the equally impressive and risky "Fire Bomb," a song produced by Brian Kennedy (who helmed her massive hit "Disturbia") that puts Rihanna in a Molotov cocktail of a car instead of behind the barrel of a gun. If these images read as corny, they're made powerful by their settings, which also recall the classic melodrama of girl groups like the Shangri-Las, and by Rihanna's singing, which powerfully invokes the internal conflict of a lover who knows what's good for her but needs time to fully feel it.

When she sings, "What you did to me was a crime," in "Cold Case Love," co-penned by Justin Timberlake, what comes across isn't recrimination. It's regret. The songs on "Rated R" never have their singer apologize for the man who so seriously wronged her, but they do acknowledge the other emotions that come with separation, even from a partner who's also a perpetrator. Those feelings include regret, tenderness and deep sadness.

By allowing herself to express the whole range of what an abused woman goes through, Rihanna has given those young fans for whom she feels responsible the greatest gift art can give: a portrait of lived experience that doesn't step back from what's hardest to admit.

-- Ann Powers

Rihanna
"Rated R"
Def Jam
Four stars (Out of four)

RELATED:

Rihanna says she left Chris Brown to set an example for other domestic violence victims

Rihanna reveals 'Russian Roulette'

Rihanna's 'Russian Roulette' is loaded -- but what does it say?

Live review: Chris Brown at the Avalon

Photo credit: Associated Press

 
Comments () | Archives (16)

Great review Ann. One of your best. I throughly agree with you..Best Pop Album of 2009. Instant Classic. Though it may not be a commercial success..simply because the industry is at a crap state (most follow electro-pop trends and gimmicky sounds) If this were released 8-10 years ago...it would be huge. Which says alot.

Amazing album, I just bought it. Im speechless. Instant classic.

Great and balanced review!!!!!Best Album of 2009 and 2010!!!Go RiRi....Rihanna reign just won't let up!!

Great article and so well written!

Britney Spears is Madonna's inheritor? How?

This is utter nonsense.
I still cringe about how much nonsense is poured into this (I suppose very well paid by Miss Sunshine's label) "review".

First of all, this album is a shameless sham. A total fake product which fails at once to be artistic and/or provocative.
It's like a throwoff from Garbage 1997 era.

Just that is "sung" by a computer and sgnarled over by the most talentless "icon" nowadays.

Rihanna is working with men? What a surprise: they are the only feeding her cos she goes with them all.
Please.

She thinks this is "art"?

Do us a favour: don't call these clichées art by any mean. Don't think to dress as a tastless who makes you bold. Don't think the way you've used your (horrid) disgrace calls for more respect cos you should have spoken way before to call in some real sympathy.

This album is a patchwork of tricks. And she really has no vocal depth or talent whatsoever. I've got the disgrace to listen to that repeatedly cos my significant other works at a local radio. It's one of the worst records ever. And in a time like this, when most records already are very bad, that's quite an achievement, I have to say.

The promotion of her record label is even more annoying that it has already used to be.

But this girl, beside being arrogant and beautiful, has no other space in the news to be filled. Certainly not musically. She simply doesn't write her songs. And she is painful at singing them. She was ridicolous at the AMA. She is totally deaft-toned and her voice is terrible, no matter how many computers she might use to save that both onstage and on the records she "produces".

I hope her 15 minutes are gone. We need serious artists who have something real to say and portray. This one really is the fakest person ever appeared on stage. And put it simply, she has no artistic skills whatsoever.

She should have just sent that Brown criminal in jail. But she hasn't even the brain or senses to do that, and she will probably be back with him as soon as this won't hurt her "career".

She's really embarassing.

And this review must be a joke. Or a good house on the hills for the reviewer.

Give me a break.

I love the comparison to the Shangri-Las, one of my favorite bands. I think it really explains why this album appeals to me so much - especially in tracks like Firebomb and Russian Roulette. Very nice review.

Malin is just a hater, who's probably just a Chris Brown Fan. This Album has amazing songs. Russian Roulette, Firebomb, Rude Boy, Hard, Wait Your Turn, and Rockstar 101 are my favourites.

Great Album. What was all the backlash about? I think because they came out with Russian Roulette (which I like but should not have been the first song release). She should have started with HARD, then Stupid or Cold Case Love. This is a great album. So far the best I have heard this year. I actually downloaded the whole album. GRAMMY WORTHY! Best Pop Album; Best R&B Album.

An actual music review based on, oh you know, the music in this album would have been nice, instead of a personal diatribe on what feminism is or isn't or how Rhianna does or doesn't fit that definition. The definition of feminism provided to us by the author is quite limiting and regressive and her characterization of Rhianna has more to do with the relationship with Chris Brown than it does of her music album. I also find it really inappropriate to write such sweeping generalizations about what all abuse survivors experience. And to suggest that Rhianna had some duty or "responsibility" to her fans, society, men, or to anyone else except herself, is the exact opposite of what feminism is all about.

I always thought she was cute. Made fun danceable songs. Then came this album. It is quite frankly a masterpiece. She has proven herself as an artist and made a work of true art. This will be the defining moment in her career. I agree that it's a shame it wont be as successful, atleast I don't think it will...although it would be a nice surprise. But, we all know how the masses lean toward the run of the mill fluff. Kudos Rihanna!

When I first played the CD, I was a bit disappointed by the use of profanity and sexual innuendo because I feel Rihanna is more talented than that, and need not stoop to the use of gimmick. Upon further listening, I better appreciated the state of mind she must have been in during its making.

"Rated R" has quickly become one of my all-time favorite CDs. It is most definitely deserving of Grammy nominations. I think "Russian Roulette" is brilliant.

My fear for this album is that the teeny-boppers who are expecting "Umbrella, pt. 2" will be disappointed. We got a glimpse of "this Rihanna" with "Disturbia." LOVED that song, LOVE this CD!!!

Good for you Rihanna!

okaaay theyll give chris brown's album 1 and 1/2 stars and give rihanna 4 out of 4. i think not! when chris actually has true talent and attemtps to write his own music not just rely on heavy hitting producer/songwriters like rihanna. whatever!

britney sprears' music is mostly written by danja and bloodshy & avant and max martin...i've seen two female credits and they were co-writing credits. ann powers, once again proving to know nothing about music. that kesha review is the most proof.

" She has proven herself as an artist and made a work of true art. This will be the defining moment in her career. I agree that it's a shame it wont be as successful, atleast I don't think it will...although it would be a nice surprise. But, we all know how the masses lean toward the run of the mill fluff."

And Rihanna pretty much defines "run of the mill fluff", hence her massive success in spite of her lack of talent. And she didn't "make a work of true art", her team of producers and songwriters did. Rihanna has no creative input in her work whatsoever. Having listened to the album myself, most of the songs are disposable crap. It's like she's trying too hard to prove that she's tough and edgy (which she clearly isn't). Good Girl Gone Bad was as good as she could get. Only Malin on here has some common sense.

She's two steps above Britney and five below Beyonce


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