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Album review: Rihanna's 'Rated R'

November 23, 2009 | 12:47 pm

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.) 


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

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


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Live review: Chris Brown at the Avalon

Photo credit: Associated Press