“Russian Roulette,” “Hard,” “G4L” [Gangsta 4 Life], and “Fire Bomb” all sound like song titles that wouldn’t be out of place on any of your favorite rapper’s albums today. But they aren’t from an emcee; these are titles from songs on Rihanna’s fourth studio album. This “good girl gone bad” has emerged from the dust of a rocky relationship a new woman, and Rated R masterfully takes you along for the ride.
Rihanna’s road to success has been nothing but flashing lights. She started out as the sweet islander with a pretty face and a hot body, and since being taken under the wing by industry giant Shawn Carter, she has transformed into an R&B/Pop powerhouse. Jay-Z may have been referencing his then girlfriend Beyonce back in 2003 when he stated “I got the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain,” but in 2009 Rihanna wears that title like a crown, whether warranted or not. Her career reached new heights when she linked with Chris Brown, and abruptly hit cavernous lows when their caustic relationship disintegrated, leaving her face and her feelings in shambles. But like the well-trained star that she is, Rihanna is making lemonade out of lemons and is using every avenue to sell it to you, in turn giving everyone something (else) to talk about.
For Rated R, Def Jam’s golden girl worked with many of the same producers that helped make Good Girl Gone Bada multi-platinum success, including Stargate, The Dream and Tricky Stewart, and Justin Timberlake. This time around, Rihanna also worked closely with London-based electro-pop duo Chase and Status on three of the albums tracks. Will.I.Am also lends his expertise and vocals for a song as well. But even with these new additions, Rihanna knew where to go for a hit single: old faithful Ne-Yo.
The album’s lead single, “Russian Roulette” was released on October 20th, 2009, not long after Brown’s hit single “I Can Transform Ya” was released. While Roulette’s ascension was slower than Rihanna’s previous 11 top ten singles, it was received well by both fans and critics alike. The song, much darker and somber than we’re used to hearing from Rihanna, icy and ominous, with her vocals front and center as she tells the tale of a troubled relationship. You can draw your own conclusions as to whether it’s based on the true story. Ne-Yo and Stargate do an excellent job of helping Rihanna emote her experiences as she sings, “You can see my heart beating. You can see it through my chest that I’m terrified, but I’m not leaving. I know that I must past this test, so just pull the trigger.” A very heavy song for such a young girl, but life makes you grow up quickly.
Not only do life’s experiences force you to grow up quickly, but they also change who you grow up to be. On the album’s second single, “Hard,” we find the pop princess trading in her tiara for all black everything as she teams up with Jeezy she boastfully sings “Never lying, truth teller. That Rihanna rain just won’t let up.” Now we hear a girl that’s been hurt putting up her tough exterior, and though it’s likely a façade, her delivery is smooth and believable, with Jeezy’s U.S.D.A. stamp of approval and The Dream and Stewart’s charismatic, infectious production style solidifying it as a sure-fire hit.
As the album progresses, Rihanna continues to play the passive-aggressive role, teaming up with electro-pop duo Chase and Status on “G4L,” resulting in a dark, melodic take on the traditional techno record. Rihanna pushes the envelope here with her “gangster-ness,” or lack thereof, as she again takes subliminal shots at Brown, singing
“You drivin’ by with them headlights, we know where you stay. Know what you did. We don’t play that shit. N***a, we don’t play. Everybody cried when you did your dirt. Acting like a bitch fittin’ to get you hurt.”
Rihanna stans will love it but for the common listener, this tough-girl act of masking a hurt young woman is clearly transparent and gets a little tired, no matter how hot the beat is.
On “Rockstar 101” we get a taste of the Rihanna we’ve been programmed to love: edgy, hot, and infectious. Every element of this song is masterfully done, from the creative, guitar-driven production courtesy of The Dream and Stewart (with an assist from Rock Legend Slash), to the flattering vocal arrangement performed by Rihanna. This is one of the album’s gems, where we get to see Rihanna strut her stuff with an attitude to match that mullet and leather she likes to rock.
Another of the album’s standout tracks is the Caribbean-inspired “Rude Boy.” Another Stargate production, with songwriting from Polow Da Don’s newest protégé’ Ester Dean (who consequently teamed up with Brown on her hit single “Drop it Low”). Stargate demonstrate their versatility as they tackle a beat that brings Rihanna back to her Bajan roots, and provides a bright contrast to the album’s cold, hard vibe. Rihanna’s voice is softer than usual as she vocalizes her sensual side, singing “Tonight I’mma give it to you harder. Tonight I’mma turn your body out. Relax let me do it how I wanna. If you got it I need it and I’mma put it down.”
Despite tumultuous times in her personal life, Rihanna remains in the top spot with Rated R, another album that’s guaranteed to spawn more than one top ten hit. The album takes you through the singer’s highs and lows, and though at times is a bit pretentious, wherever it goes, it goes with surgical precision. Welcome to the “Mad House.”
out of 5
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