Monday, December 7, 2009

NO MORE MS. NICE GIRL

In four and a half years, Rihanna has released exactly three fantastic singles ("Pon De Replay," "If It's Lovin' That You Want" and "Umbrella"), though she's never held my attention for long. I've always wanted more of her music to sound as interesting as she looks, but big hits like "S.O.S." and, in particular, "Don't Stop The Music," while far from terrible, felt a little color-by-numbers. They never had me reaching for the repeat button.

It took her long enough, but with Rated R, her fourth album, Rihanna finally comes thisclose to capturing my undivided attention over the course of an entire record. Taken straightforward, her declaration that "the wait is over" early on confounds because since debuting with "Pon De Replay" in 2005, Rihanna never has really gone away. But from the point of view that Rihanna finally has delivered an album as solid as her best singles, "the wait is over" becomes gospel truth.

If her year from hell damaged her psyche (and judging from some of the lyrical content, one can assume that it has), it's done wonders for her music. Or maybe knowledge of her beating last February at the hands of then-boyfriend Chris Brown naturally makes for a more layered listening experience. Though I'd venture to say that the album would hold up even without the autobiographical subtext, the two are perhaps inextricably linked because had she not been viciously attacked by her boyfriend, she probably would have recorded another standard-issue Rihanna album.

Most of the songs on Rated R are darker and deeper than anything she's done before (the introspection spawned by domestic abuse?), with a distinct rock & roll edge (the anger because of it?). Even the ballads are above average. The first single, "Russian Roulette," with it's droning, slowburn groove and suicidal imagery, was the first clue that this might not be a typical Rihanna album. To be honest, the song, a bit aimless and tuneless, doesn't do much for me.

"Cold Case Love," a track in a similar vein which also easily could be interpreted as being directly inspired by what happened with Chris Brown, does what "Russian Roulette" doesn't. It moves me. Co-written by Justin Timberlake, it's my favorite Rated R track at the moment (as with all excellent albums, that's likely to change again and again over time). Interestingly, those two most seemingly autobiographical Rated R songs are two of the few that Rihanna didn't have a hand in writing.

Who knows how fans will react to the new and improved Rihanna? Despite the presence of chart-friendly collaborators like Young Jeezy and will.i.am, the songs don't sound like obvious bids for No. 1. The aforementioned "Wait Your Turn" finds her digging deep into her lowest register singing over what sounds like a choir of chainsaws. On "Rockstar," which features Slash on guitar, she ventures into Beyoncé territory, but that would be the street-cred Beyoncé of "Diva" and not the more mainstream "Single Ladies" one.

Despite that one near-impersonation, Rated R is 100% Rihanna's show, which is a pretty awesome feat, considering the number of producers on board. When she announces that "I'm so hard" on "Hard" or labels herself a "gangsta for life" on "G4L," she's convincing. My guess is that no guy will have the balls to mess with this "fucking lady" (as she refers to herself on "Wait Your Turn") ever again.
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