"Russian Roulette," released weeks prior to Rated R, just hinted at Rihanna's sudden desire to provoke. Even with the realization that it is metaphorical, the song startles with its hesitant gasps, spinning cylinders, and verses that are glacially paced, where a cold piano line and the slight inflections in Rihanna's voice are front and center. And then there’s an audible shudder followed by a discharged bullet -- the abrupt end to one of Rated R’s most restrained moments. It’s not the only instance where Rihanna’s rise in fame, combined with being the victim in the decade’s highest-profile felonious assault, added up to a perfect-storm scenario for a creative overhaul. Rated R is more like Good Girl Gone Evil, or Abused Girl Full of Vengeful Rage, not Good Girl Gone Bad, where the only casualties were some dishes. The closest the set gets to upbeat pop is “Rude Boy,” and by any standard it is stern; needless to say, there is quite a difference between “Can you get it up?” and “You can stand under my umbrella.” Much of this daring album is absolutely over the top, bleak and sleek both lyrically and sonically, but it’s compelling, filled with as many memorably belligerent lines -- two of which, “I pitch with a grenade/Swing away if ya feeling brave” and “I’m such a fuckin’ lady,” set the tone early on -- as a rap album made ripe for dissection. “G4L,” over a low-slung and sleek production, is the most fantastical of all, in which Rihanna leads a band of homicidal women, opening with “I lick the gun when I’m done ‘cause I know that revenge is sweet” and “Any mothaf*cka wanna disrespect/Playin’ with fire finna get you wet.” The breakup song, “Fire Bomb,” even though it is also metaphorical, is a close second in terms of lyrical extremity: “I just wanna set you on fire so I won’t have to burn alone.” Some of the breathers -- the songs that are less intense -- hold the album back since Rihanna sounds detached from them. The one exception is the wistful, bittersweet “Photographs,” a rare instance of the singer dropping her guard, but it really sticks out since it is surrounded by material that has her taking the variably authentic roles of abused lover, dominatrix, and murderer. Whether the album seems ridiculous or spectacular (or both), Rihanna's complete immersion in the majority of the songs cannot be disputed. That is the one thing that is not up for debate.
Review by Andy Kellman