"Russian Roulette," released weeks prior to Rated R, just hinted at Rihanna's sudden desire to provoke. Even with the realization that it is metaphorical, the song startles with its hesitant gasps, spinning cylinders, and verses that are glacially paced, where a cold piano line and the slight inflections in Rihanna's voice are front and center. And then there’s an audible shudder followed by a discharged bullet -- the abrupt end to one of Rated R’s most restrained moments.
Rated R is without question a very dark album, which should come as no surprise. After her breakup with Chris Brown following a vicious beating, it was assumed that she'd be addressing domestic abuse and heartbreak, but we were expecting a more introspective collection of ballads and tearjerkers. Instead, she's delivered an angry and emotional album of goth R&B jams (new genre alert?) with heavy rock overtones.
Rihanna may still have her umbrella (ella, ella), but all offers to stand under it are off. If 2007’s multiplatinum chart beast Good Girl Gone Bad was her gleaming pop opus, Rated R is a defiant middle finger to all that — a posttraumatic diary built on ? furious bravado, rampant profanity, and the bruising fallout from her February assault at the hands of then boyfriend Chris Brown. Granted, the 21-year-old Barbadian star has spent the last five years shedding successive skins — first emerging as the blithe island princess of her 2005 debut, Music of the Sun, then remolded into the nascent urban Lolita of ’06’s A Girl Like Me and the increasingly provocative baby diva of Gone Bad.
There was an exact moment when Rihanna stopped being a milquetoast pop automaton and started to establish a persona unto herself. It wasn't "Umbrella"; however ubiquitous, that megasmash's most meaningful and believable utterances-- "ella, ella, eh, eh, eh"-- meant nothing. It wasn't February 8, 2009, when Chris Brown beat her with enough force to warrant a 50-yard, three-year restraining order; though that incident and its aftermath informs most of Rated R.
Even by the standards of the R&B video – never the most opaque or subtle of the visual arts – the promo for Rihanna's single Russian Roulette is striking. It features the singer being gassed, shot, run over, drowned, and tearfully pleading with her captors in a torture chamber: "I'm terrified." This is interspersed with scenes of her curled up in a padded cell: at one juncture in the latter, she appears to be – and, given the provocative nature of the video, let us not be unduly coy here – masturbating. You could say that making a video that explicitly links sexual desire with abusive violence is a deeply weird thing for the victim of the most high-profile case of domestic abuse in recent memory to do.
Rated R should be among the best albums of the year, not just because Rihanna has transformed herself into a bona fide pop goddess, but because, well, she deserves it. Carrying herself through the Chris Brown ordeal with dignity and intelligence, Rihanna has shown herself to be more than we ever thought possible. At times it’s tough to remember that this phenomenon is only 21, and that her career already spans four albums.
RIHANNA“Rated R”(Def Jam) Rihanna glares from the cover of “Rated R,” concealing one eye with a hand. “Rated R,” her fourth album, arrives nine months after Chris Brown, her boyfriend at the time, blackened her eye in a beating as they were driving back from a pre-Grammy party. The ….