Album review: Rihanna - Rated R

Album review: Rihanna - Rated R
Rihanna started to shorten the hair and turn a little dark with Good girl gone bad. But after Chris Brown tore out a few pieces of her hair, put her in a headlock and snacked on her hand: she shaved up her head, started rocking black by the truck load, and went all Grace Jones on our arses. With a shift in image, it was only natural the music would follow. And boy did it follow...

Up until this album Rihanna recorded the songs she was given, had no creative input on her songs, and as a result had little musical credibility to her name for how big her singles were. Rated R is Rihanna's album of reigned control. Writing for the first time and executive producing the project. Rihanna had a lot to prove with this album. That she wasn't purely the product of perfectly picked songs by her superiors, and that she could stay afloat on the merits of her music and not a bunch of scandals or some fly outfit with some new hair cut.

Rihanna clearly has a lot more to say this time around - something that her co-writing 9 of the albums 13 tracks indicates. And from the albums' first full song it's clear she has some shit she wants off her chest, and that she's out to make it known she's in this for the long haul. In fact, half of the album is Rihanna attesting to just how bad a bitch she really is. A far shy from the quiet girl who was whispering to a DJ to put songs pon de replay.

The swag-fest starts with "Wait your turn". The song is rubbish. It tries too hard to be a hot hood bangin' anthem - but it comes up shorter than Danny DeVito. Rihanna's vocals are annoying, and the beat doesn't knock as hard as Stargate seem to think it does. "Hard" on the other hand picks up every piece of slack that "Wait your turn" failed to. The song is a winner. It eludes me completely why this wasn't picked as the first single. The beat is hot and knocks hard. Rihanna brings serious swagger to the table, and she sounds every bit the staple pop star with lines such as "That Rihanna rain just don't let up", "The baddest bitch in heels right here" and asking "Where dem girls talkin' trash? Where dem bloggers at? Where they at?". I can't find a single fault with "Hard" at all. It's such a damn good song that encapsulates Rihanna's current image and direction more than any other song on the album. "Rockstar 101" didn't do much for me on a first listen. But as soon as Rihanna sung "Frisk my panties and my bra" line, I was sold. This would make a great single. The production is tight and Rihanna sounding so sweet singing such ballsy lyrics with a potty mouth creates a naughtily sexy juxtaposition. The only bum note this song hits is with the bridge section - where the switch in melody is so unnecessary and uncalled for, that it almost de-rails the whole song. "G4L" shoots a line for a grime 'n dub step style sound, and it works really well. Hearing a female vocal singing over such a beat colours proceedings nicely. Whilst the beat does a great job of tapping into a dark vibe - hearing Rihanna sing about guns in the air, mutha f**kers, n***a's and gangsta creeping at night with her car head lights on full beam is enough to make your eyes roll.

Whilst much of Rated R makes a bold attempt to pretty much strip away the Rihanna we'd gotten on past albums, "Rude boy" is a reminder of that girl from Music in the sun, A girl like me and the still wholly innocent girl on Good girl gone bad. "Rude boy" is incredibly safe and 'by numbers' in sound, but is a great song none-the-less. The song doesn't have worldwide smash potential, but it has great buzz and promo single potential. Def Jam would be wise issuing this to radio and DJ's. For each album that Rihanna has done, Stargate always, always, always hooked Rihanna up with one ridiculously hot up-tempo. And "Rude boy" is forth time the charm.

50% of the album is comprised of mid-tempo songs. All of which but one serve as introspective looks at a girl who has had her heart broken and ended up in a relationship that served more than she bargained for. There are no name calls to the woman beating n***a that is Chris Brown. But it's clear Rihanna's relationship with Chris which fell to pieces fuelled the lyrics.

Ne-Yo steps up to the plate first with "Stupid in love". A Rihanna album wouldn't be a Rihanna album these days without an offering from Stargate and Ne-Yo. "Stupid in love" sounds like "Unfaithful" with a little more in the way of drums. It's not a terrible song. But we've heard it all before, and done better on past efforts. It's not the same shift for Rihanna that "Unfaithful" was, and it's no "Take a bow".

"Fire bomb" is the first song on the album that has Rihanna singing with no angst, and is Rated R's first wholly pop record. Producer Brian Kennedy switches gears completely, to the the point you'd never guess he was the man behind the production for "Disturbia". "Fire bomb" is nice, but the song feels like it's missing something. Rihanna hits her fair share of iffy notes. And the production lacks the bigness that this song would need to really take off as a single and be stamped as Rated R's definitive pop ballad. "Fire bomb" would have been a much stronger song in the hands of Kelly Clarkson or P!nk - vocalists who can belt and sing with grit and feeling.

"Photographs" is a strange one, because it is good. In fact, it's really, really good. But will.i.am's rap is a deal breaker. Put simply: if the song is Rihanna in the passenger side of a car, then Will.i.am's rap is the n***a beating her from the drivers side. Will.i.am's is a great producer. But he never seems to know when to back down and stay off of a song. His rap feels tacked on, unnecessary and kills the poignancy of the lyrics. Rihanna's crooning about the void left in her life by an ex-boyfriend she loved, left and still loves over a Fleetwood Mac like backdrop of bass guitars and ethereal synths is stunning. And then in comes Will.i.am and an auto-tuned rap about wearing Calvin Klein and kissing on somebody's Grandma's sofa - f**king up the whole song. This would make a really nice and surprising third or forth single. I could hold out for a radio edit which does away with Will.i.am's rap. But given the Black eyed peas' success and breaking of records with their The E.N.D album, I can't see him being taken out of the song in the event of it becoming a single. Shame that.

"Te amo" had been out 'n about 6 months before Rated R touched down, so it's anything but new. But it's still a great song with some really cool lyrics about two girls dancing, and confessions of love. James Fauntleroy does a stellar job with the song writing (as he often does) and the Latin style production mixed with Timbo bitten percussion is hot. Definitely a song that clubs should be jumping on. No doubt a ragga or reggae artist will want to do something with this (if they haven't already).

"Cold case love" is an album highlight, which strips away that bad girl image and pretence. And just has Rihanna emoting over a simplified beat which builds up to a clash of guitars, percussions and orchestrated strings courtesy of Larry Gold. Justin Timberlake and his production team The Y's are really doing their thing. This song makes "Rehab" sound like shit. The Y's (once again) completely jack Timbaland's style in such a fashion that they should feel a little bit ashamed. But there's no denying how great a song it is. It's a shame it's grandeur is marred somewhat by the follow up nonsense "The last song". "Cold case love" would have made a brilliant album closer. It clocks in at 6 minutes, but the song never feels like it's outstaying it's welcome. One of Rihanna and Justin's best. This isn't quite up there with Justin's offering to Esmee with "Bigger than the world". But it's just as moving a song - at a different end of the same spectrum.

Closing the album is the mess that is "The last song". I can imagine whoever felt this song would make a good album closer went on nothing but the song title. But "Cold case love" should have been the last song instead of this overcooked, shit stained, snooze-fest of a song. It's boring. It goes nowhere. And Rihanna's vocals couldn't drop any more voice cracks if she had swine flu, a throat full of flem, and was sat with a d**k in the side of her mouth.

Many of Good girl gone bad's producers were drafted back in for this album. But the sad thing is, is that aside from Justin Timberlake, none of the returning crew have managed to top anything they gave Rihanna the last time around. Stargate delivered the hotness with "Rude boy". But as good as the song is, it's not on a level with "Don't stop the music" or "Let me" from Rihanna's debut Music of the sun. Tricky and The Dream give Rihanna hotness for "Hard" and "Rockstar 101". But neither are in the same league as "Breakin' dishes". Brian Kennedy gave Rihanna the hotness that really should have been saved for this album with "Disturbia", but trips up with "Fire bomb" and falls flat on his face with "The last song".

Rihanna is a grown woman now, with an edge. We get that. But some of the swearing on this album felt unnecessary. She drops F-bombs several occasions and throws the word shit, bitch and n***a around one too many times. As if swearing automates her as a bad g'yal. She earns no points for it. Certain songs it works. On other it felt too contrived and un-necessary.

I give Rihanna praise for her vocal presence. There's not a great deal of vocal improvement between her debut and now. But the confidence is now cemented within her in a way in which it wasn't before. Her vocals command your attention this time around, and she seems much more in tune with emoting as she sings - as is evident on songs such as "Cold case love" and "Stupid in love". She also sounds a great deal more confident in her self and what she's singing, which comes through strong; even on the weaker songs. Rihanna finally seems to believe in herself more, which allows her to be more expressive and it does wonders for how she sounds on songs.

Rated R doesn't feel as big an album as it's trying to be. But the music is decent enough that the whole time you're listening to the album you're not thinking about the Chris Brown incident, how it lacks a song as big as "Umbrella" and that her last album may have been much better.

Rated R is an album you really do have to sit through and listen to from start to finish - as some songs won't grow on you until you've heard them a couple of times or once they hit a certain point. It's almost as though Rihanna and those she worked with seemed to push for the edgy sound so much that they occasionally lose sight of what they actually should have been doing - which is creating hot pop records and songs that latch on quickly. Rated R doesn't have many obvious single choices - which may spur on a re-release quicker than Def Jam may have anticipated. But given the chance, the album does win you over. The only problem with this album that may affect its lastabaility and selling power is that Rated R requires more listens than many of the general record buying public are willing to give it. And because of this, the album may fail to reach as wide an audience. There is no one song on Rated R which has the same level of mass appeal as half of Good girl gone bad.

As a collection of songs from a girl who had a clear vision of how she wanted her forth studio effort to sound - I wouldn't say Rated R is necessarily a better album than Good girl gone bad, but it's not worse neither. If Good girl gone bad was a good look at Rihanna the manufactured pop star, Then Rated R is a look at Rihanna the artist, and the visionary. And it's not a bad look at all.


Album highlights:
■ Mad house
■ Hard
■ Rockstar 101
■ Russian roulette
■ Rude boy J's fave
■ Photographs
■ G4L
■ Te amo
■ Cold case love

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