Review Summary: At times, the toughness is too juvenile, the ballads too immature- but at others, it's a great representation of a tormented artist.
The "I've-had-a-bad-day" album isn't unheard of. Every now and then, a pop sensation goes through some emotional turmoil, be it the loss of loved ones (Kanye West) or the loss of your mind (Britney Spears). It's risky, to say the least; that internal suffering can either lead to an artist producing some of their best work, or to... well, more suffering. Rihanna, international superstar since 2005’s “Music Of The Sun” is still healing from wounds inflicted by fellow superstar ex-boyfriend Chris Brown stemming from the now infamous February 2009 pre-Grammy domestic violence case between the two. While Brown takes the "i'm really sorry- but watch me dance!" route with his upcoming effort "Graffiti", Rihanna is making the more aggressive attempt, going from third record “Good Girl” to fourth album, the seemingly more rebellious Rated R, throwing out the radio formula in exchange for rougher times – quite the jump for a girl whose most popular song is about an umbrella.
And on Rated R, while Rihanna doesn’t acknowledge Brown directly, it’s still the focal point on a record that explores all the feelings and phases of a broken songbird- from self-assured denial to angered frustration to delicate desperation. But Rihanna's attempt to seem edgy and super bad is somewhat laughable; her tough girl facade can be frustratingly immature on songs like "Rockstar 101”, where her self-indulgence over gritty electric guitar is incredibly juvenile. "Wait Your Turn", featuring a Jamaican-accented, grenade-tossing Rihanna over a sluggish thump is passable, but “Hard” manages to be the best yet least convincing of the bunch- there’s great production involved, but when you’re trying to seem like a badass, choosing to sing the phrase “Yeah, yeah, yeah, i’m so hard!” should be seen as a terrible idea.
But her tougher tracks are often thrown off by her softer ballads, on which Rihanna sounds even more childish: “Photographs”, produced by and featuring Will.I.Am, can’t decide if it wants to be a sad song or a Black Eyed Peas song, and isn’t successful at either. “Stupid In Love” is so lyrically terrible that it’s hard to swallow: “This is stupid, I’m not stupid, Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid! I may be dumb, but I’m not stupid!” the chorus claims.
But through all the inconsistent emotions that fuel Rated R, there are still the parts of the album that just shine- “Russian Roulette”, the controversial lead single where Rihanna contemplates her own life over a thumping heartbeat is perfectly haunting from start to finish if you can sit through the awkward premise: the gun even goes off in the end. Justin Timberlake co-writes and co-produces “Cold Case Love”, which as a legal themed breakup (“Your love was breaking the law / But I needed a witness”) comes off brilliant; and somehow when Rihanna darkly sings “I lick the gun when I’m done / Because I know that revenge is sweet,” over the threatening “G4L” (Gangsta For Life), you almost believe it.
And “Fire Bomb” seems to be the mid-tempo tune where it all comes together. It’s a standout ballad where Rihanna is both pretty and desperate over both a unique combination of electric guitar and piano. “I just wanna set you on fire so I don’t have to burn alone,” she delicately sings. It’s the target Rated R seems to be aiming for- an angered, sad, and hurt victim trying to heal, and wanting the world to feel her pain. Rated R doesn’t have any hit single potential, but it does an acceptable job at capturing a tormented artist- and more notably, a vulnerable woman.