Monday, November 16, 2009

Rihanna's "Rated R": It's a MADHOUSE!!!

Rating: 5/5

When Rated R’s intro, “Madhouse,” opens with towering, horror movie organs and a mysterious, creepy voice announcing, “Ladies and Gentleman, for those among you that are easily frightened, we suggest you turn away now. To those of you who think they can take it, we say…Welcome to the Madhouse,” it becomes quite clear that this is a very different Rihanna.

Was it a calculated move on the part of her camp to return to the scene with an album as honest, raw and, at times, hardcore as Rated R? Or is this what happens when a young artist suffers the way Rihanna has over the course of this past year? I don’t know. What I do know is that Rated R is nothing less than a triumph; while there may not be another “Umbrella” here, what we have instead is a consistently adventurous, hard-edged, and surprisingly badass pop album.

There are multiple aspects of Rated R that stand out initially, one of which being Rihanna herself. The girl has finally arrived, matching Beyonce’s fiery, rapidfire vocals with her own funky, patois-inflected style, rather than simple mimicry. Rihanna’s swag (I hate that word, but bear with me) is intoxicating and endlessly entertaining throughout, particularly on 2nd single, “Hard”. Produced by The-Dream and Trick Stewart, and featuring a masterful guest verse from Young Jeezy, Rihanna sounds like Hip Hop’s response to Ronnie Spector; she plays it cool and detached, bragging effortlessly “All up on it/Know you wanna clone it/Ain’t like me, that chick too phony/Ride this beat, beat, beat like a pony/Meet me at the top, it’s getting lonely.” Rihanna has developed an incredible knack for selling a song with sheer force of personality, recognizing and exploiting the humor in some of the lyrics and then calculatedly enunciating them for maximum impact (check the way she sings “I’m such a fuckin’ ladaaaaay” on the much-maligned/completely underrated “The Wait Is Ova’” for proof). And when she has to take it down a notch, she does it with subtlety and class; “Take A Bow”-styled ballad “Stupid In Love” succeeds mainly because of the sweeping melodrama of the arrangement and Rihanna’s pained, emotion-drenched performance on the effectively-repetitive chorus.

Rihanna’s emergence as one of the most charismatic and effectual pop vocalist of her generation is welcome but not surprising; she made that very clear with her show-stealing performance on Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” earlier this year. What is most shocking about Rated R is the brash, honest and all-around badass lyrical content. Rated R is what Britney Spears’ Blackout would have been if Spears had chosen better songwriters/producers and had made the crucial decision not to pretend that the intense pressure and drama of her real life didn’t exist (the obvious exception being “Piece of Me”). Rihanna does not make this mistake, and has definitely given significant input into the songwriting here. “Russian Roulette” tells the story of a dangerous, ticking time bomb of a relationship, while the stunning, Justin Timberlake-penned “Cold Case Love” is definitely addressing Rihanna’s now infamous initial decision to rekindle her relationship with Chris Brown in the weeks following the assault. Over a spare, haunting organ, she croons plaintively “On my roof/Dark and I’m burning a rose/I don’t need proof/I’m torn apart and you know/What you did to me was a crime/Cold case love/And I let you reach me one more time/But that’s enough.”

Remarkably, the album is careful to respect the range of emotions one must feel in a toxic, volatile relationship, presenting an incredibly human picture of Rihanna and the struggle she’s endured. “Fire Bomb”, like a darker, better “Shut Up and Drive”, tells the story of star-crossed lovers, fated to destroy themselves with the intense, self-destructive love they share. And the bridge will give you chills, with Rihanna pleading “Baby we were killing them/They couldn’t handle the millionth degree/We were criminals/As we were burning the world called the police/Fire department, ambulance/You can call me crazy cause I believe/The only move for me and you/Is to blow our flames.” Three songs later comes “G4L”, a bitter, violent revenge fantasy and (perhaps ill-advised) rallying cry for battered women, complete with a horrifying opening line: “I lick the gun when I’m done/Cause I know that revenge is sweet/So sweet.” Rihanna once again takes a distant, almost maniacally detached tone, this time over a murky, simmering bed of synths, calling herself a “Gangsta 4 Life” and boasting “We’re an army/Better yet, a navy/Better yet, crazy/Guns in the air/Guns in the air/Guns in the air/Can’t hurt us again when you come around here.”

Rated R has its lighter moments as well, and the results are just as risky and electrifying. “Te Amo” may be the most musically and lyrically intriguing song on the album, telling the story of a brief, whirlwind lesbian love connection over a brisk and bright, latin-influenced arrangement. Elsewhere, Rihanna is in rare form, brashly proclaiming “Six inch walker/Big shit talker/I never play a victim/I’d rather be a stalker/So baby take me in/I’ll disobey the law/Make sure you frisk me good/Check my panties and my bra” over a storm of synths and heavy metal guitars on “Rock Star 101”. And as for the dance floor moment of the album, that award goes to “Rude Boy” a playful, in-your-face, dirty talk session over a dancehall-influenced beat. Rihanna mocks and taunts her partner throughout, asking “Come here rude boy/Boy, can you get it up?/Come here rude boy/Boy, is you big enough?/ Take it, Take it/Baby, Baby/Take it, take it/Love me, love me!” Yeah…like I said, this is a different Rihanna.

You’re going to hear a lot of things about Rated R in the coming weeks. Some people will hate it, and long for another song like “Disturbia” or “Don’t Stop The Music; others will disapprove of the content, perhaps finding it to be excessive or (my personal favorite) “setting a bad example.” Well, those people will be completely wrong.

Rated R is exactly the album Rihanna was supposed to make at this stage in her career. It may not sell as well as Good Girl Gone Bad, but it's undoubtedly the better album, revealing an emotional depth that, though previously dormant in Rihanna's music, was absolutely necessary for her to convey in the aftermath of her struggles.

And did I mention that its seriously badass?

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