At the start of the 2010s, Rihanna had undeniably become the industry’s commercial darling of pop, R&B, hip-hop, and dancehall. With three hit albums under her belt – and a reputation as an artistic chameleon – she seemed unstoppable… until tragedy struck. With media headlines obsessing over her personal trauma, Rihanna’s world turned upside down, resulting in her most revelatory and vulnerable work to date: Rated R.
A rule-breaking spirit
During the lead up to Rated R, Rihanna dropped a few hints at her new direction. Her previous album, 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad, embraced her rule-breaking spirit, while a bonus track on that album’s Reloaded edition, “Disturbia,” signaled a sharper transformation in her music videos, style, and song structures. Its haunting nature would predate Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster and “Bad Romance,” once again placing Rihanna ahead of her peers.
Underlying the darker turn the singer was taking, on 3 June 2009, Kanye West released his music video for “Paranoid,” starring Rihanna in a victim role, speeding in a getaway car. The nightmarish imagery mirrored an experience she’d had earlier that year: a domestic-violence altercation with her then-boyfriend, Chris Brown.
Ready to take over the world… again
As pictures of Rihanna’s injured face leaked to the press, the singer endured criticisms and rumors about how she handled the situation, prompting her to take a break, both musically and from public appearances. After her appearance in Kanye’s video, however, she returned to the studio. Singing on a triumphant hook from Jay Z and Ye’s “Run This Town,” Rihanna made it clear: she was ready to take over the world once again.
Released on November 23, 2009, Rated R plays out like a classic horror film. A narrator opens the album with an ominous introduction: “Ladies and gentlemen/To those among you who are easily frightened/We suggest you turn away now/To those of you who think they can take it/We say: welcome to the Mad House!”
Over a chilling dubstep beat, Rihanna encourages listeners to “come on, come on”, before leading into the second track, “Wait Your Turn.” Full of sports metaphors, “Wait Your Turn” is Rihanna at her cockiest. Shot in stark black-and-white in the accompanying video, Rihanna struts around like a latter-day Grace Jones, sporting a slicked-back Mohawk and declaring, “The wait is over!”
Rated R’s official first single, “Russian Roulette,” would take an even darker tone. “As my life flashes before my eyes/I’m wondering if I will ever see another sunrise,” she painfully recounts on a ballad that sparked another watercooler moment surrounding her private life.
But “Russian Roulette” was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the kind of emotional excavation she would perform on the album. Full of gut-wrenching ballads, Rated R sees Rihanna trying to separate her real self from tabloid narratives and a packaged persona. Even with a team of top pop producers at her disposal, she was heavily involved with the songwriting process, co-writing nine of the album’s 13 tracks and receiving an executive producer credit.
“Stupid In Love” sounds like a pained torch song, the singer wailing, “This is stupid, I’m not stupid… I may be dumb,” as she forgives her partner, despite her friends’ warnings. “Fire Bomb” continues this theme of tortured love, as Rihanna and her lover meet a Bonnie and Clyde ending. “I just wanna set you on fire so I won’t have to burn alone,” she asserts on the hook. In the background, gasoline is sparked and flames crackle to a hard-hitting arena guitar as Rihanna takes it to the bridge.
“Cold Case Love” is another gothic-tinged affair, complete with funeral organs and violin solos, on which Rihanna liberates herself from a toxic relationship. “Release me now, ’cause I did my time,” she sings. Once again, electric guitar fuels the ballad, underscored by a rhumba groove that continues on the Latin-flavoured, LGBTQ-centric track “Te Amo.”
The emancipation of RiRi
Rated R stands the test of time as a fan favorite. Similar to Anti, the album pushed boundaries for Rihanna as an artist, furthering her genre experimentation and avant-garde aesthetics. As her first explicit album – with a Parental Advisory sticker on the cover, no less – Rihanna ventured into territory that most of her pop peers weren’t bold enough to embrace.
Rated R also sees her dive into rock’n’roll decadence on “ROCKSTAR 101,” with an assist from Guns N’ Roses axeman Slash, as she seductively yells, “I told ya, baby… I’m a rockstar!” On “G4L,” Rihanna takes on the persona of a vengeful femme fatale – or “Gangster 4 Life” – flipping the script from “Russian Roulette” as she goes from victim to aggressor.
One of the few singles that contrasts with the dark energy of the entire Rated R album is the hit “Rude Boy,” on which Rihanna talks about her penchant for bad boys over a dancehall track reminiscent of her earlier albums Music Of The Sun and A Girl Like Me. The anthem topped the Billboard Hot 100, a taste of what would come.
A last reflection
Rated R is, for the most part, a solo affair with few guests or features, one of the exceptions being a spot from Black Eyed Peas frontman and producer will.i.am, who wrote and features on “Photographs.” Originally intended for his group’s The END album, Rihanna fell in love with the track and used it for her own project, where it remains a sleeper hit in her catalog.
Meanwhile, on the Top 10 hit “Hard,” Rihanna does her best hip-hop posturing over aggressive synths and pounding piano notes, enlisting rapper Young Jeezy for a Dirty South co-sign. From the jump, Rihanna lets you know that nothing (and no one) is going to slow her down: “No pain is forever/Yup, you know this,” she spits.
After putting herself through the ringer, Rihanna finally finds closure on the aptly titled “The Last Song.” With shimmering guitars and moody feedback, it’s the emotional climax of Rated R: a last reflection on the person she once was and the artist she was destined to become.