Rihanna: Rated R

At the heart of Rated R lies a common misconception: that slower songs are more emotional and more powerful, that big ballads say more about a singer's soul than, say, an R&B club hit.


Rated R

Label: Def Jam
US release date: 2009-11-23
UK release date: 2009-11-23

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?






The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.