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.
But Rated R isn’t one of the best albums of the year. It’s not even the best album in her discography (that honor still goes to Good Girl Gone Bad, the record that made umbrellas sexy). It’s not a bad record — in fact, in places it’s a very good one. But it suffers from second album syndrome, and the fact that it’s two albums too late only makes that more painful. Because if Good Girl Gone Bad was the chart-buster that made her a household name, Rated R is a reflection on that fame, on the pitfalls that came with it. And its attempts at “serious”, and “thoughtful” songs just wind up falling flat.
Rihanna knows how just much is riding on this record – “The wait is over” has been the album’s unofficial catchphrase, and is featured prominently on its first proper track, “Wait Your Turn”. Rated R opens, though, with “Mad House”, a brief little intro that says more about the album than it should. Atmospheric and dark, both funny and scary, “Mad House” is the perfect introduction to the new Rihanna. So where does it all go wrong?
There’s something about Rated R that feels under-developed; its batting average isn’t exactly Derek Jeter’s. For every brilliant bit of bravado like “Rockstar 101” (featuring the one and only Slash), there’s the disappointing “Russian Roulette”. For every guilty pleasure like the Kelly Clarkson retread “Firebomb”, there’s limp filler like “The Last Song”.
Despite the emotional upheaval surrounding this album, its slow moments are its weakest points. It’s tempting to read every song as a commentary on Chris Brown’s assault, but that does a disservice both to Rihanna and the songs themselves, which offer more than mere sensationalism.
The problem is when the slow numbers take the stage. Threatening to derail a brilliant (and brutal) pop experience, tracks like “Stupid in Love” might be aiming for something more, but they arrive at something less. At the heart of this problem lies a common misconception: that slower songs are more emotional and more powerful, that big ballads say more about a singer (particularly a female singer’s) soul than, say, an R&B club stomper. It’s the same mistake Beyonce made with I Am…Sasha Fierce, where the world universally concluded that Sasha Fierce won the day.
It’s not that Rihanna can’t do slow well. “Wait Your Turn” is a moody powerhouse, crackling with barely-repressed fire. And the chilling, fantastic “Photographs” eschews tuneless complaints and adds a disco glaze to its icy, restrained saga of love gone wrong. It’s the overwhelming theme of Rated R, but for Rihanna, it needs a bang and not a whimper.
That’s why “Hard”, featuring Young Jeezy, is the album’s strongest song, and one of pop’s best moments in recent memory. NME might have dubbed “Crazy in Love” the song of the decade, and that’s hard to contend with, but if Rihanna keeps making tracks like the ferocious, metal-tinged thumper “Hard”, she’ll be on the countdown in 2019. It’s why the infectious, ridiculous “Rude Boy” deserves to be made a single this very instant.
Elsewhere “G4L” is glossy disco trash, and “Te Amo” is border-line unlistenable. “The Last Song” is a Mariah Carey ballad that reminds us why Rihanna is not Mariah Carey. She’s Rihanna, and wherever she might want this album to be, it’s clear where it wants to go. “Russian Roulette” rounds out a series of disappointments, why it was chosen as a lead single over, say, “Rockstar 101″, is unfathomable.
Rihanna is many things, according to Rated R. She’s a rockstar; she’s hard, and, according to “Stupid in Love”, she might be dumb, but she’s not stupid. She brings hints of techno, R&B, disco, hard rock, hip-hop, and pop-punk to this album, but rather than feeling like a masterpiece, it just feels undercooked. The wait is over, indeed – but is this what we were waiting for?