Recordings: Chris Richards reviews the album 'Rated R' by Rihanna

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009

A numb fury resides at the heart of Rihanna's new album "Rated R" -- and it comes swelling to the surface almost instantly. During the opening verse of "Wait Your Turn," the embattled singer bellows her opening salvo: "I pitch with a grenade, swing away if you're feeling brave."

Then she drops the first of this album's numerous bombs. Many start with the letter F.

Two minutes into the proceedings and we're already dealing with a Rihanna who seems worlds away from the "Umbrella"-cooing sweetie-pie of summers past. It's a fact that should surprise no one who's followed the nightmare that's unfolded around the 21-year-old earlier this year. Since fellow superstar and then-boyfriend Chris Brown assaulted the singer on the eve of the 2009 Grammy Awards, the media has spun Rihanna's plight into a humiliating tangle of gossip and speculation.

Accordingly, "Rated R" bristles with a formless rage, attempting to find catharsis via muddled self-assessments, gun-toting revenge fantasies and four-letter word outbursts.

If you were expecting Rihanna to dance her pain away, look elsewhere. There are no dance floors here. Just rubble.

And while soul music has always provided a release valve for generations of I-will-survivors, Rihanna's electronic R&B is a mutant descendant of the mother genre. She dispatches soulful vocal runs with antiseptic precision, making it hard to discern if she's truly seething or just pantomiming ire. Is she grappling with demons? Or projecting the image of a singer grappling with demons?

Impossible to say because, like most chart-hungry albums, this one was assembled by committee. "Rated R" finds the singer regrouping with The-Dream, Tricky Stewart and Justin Timberlake, a team of songwriters and producers largely responsible for transforming the Barbados-born singer into one of our decade's most formidable hit machines.

But "Rated R" isn't pushing a hit so much as a mood. And while that's an incredibly rare approach for a release this heavily anticipated, "rare" doesn't necessarily mean "good."

With a plodding beat and a forgettable hook, lead single "Russian Roulette" tries to salvage its wasted potential with a melodramatic finale: the sound of a single gunshot.

"Stupid in Love" falls into a similar sinkhole, setting heavyhearted confessions to the treacliest of melodies. After refusing her friends' advice to ditch the man in her life, Rihanna eventually chides herself with a confusing, contradictory refrain that feels culled from a tear-staineddiary. "I may be dumb," she sings. "But I'm not stupid."

There's lots of tough-girl posturing, too. "G4L" -- shorthand for "Gangsta for Life" -- kicks off with an over-the-top threat, her voice pushing through the synthesized murk like sunlight through stained glass: "I lick the gun when I'm done 'cause I know that revenge is sweet."

Such preposterous fantasies are only forgivable when you remember that, despite the glamorous lifestyle she's espoused, this woman is still very young. There's a Jonas Brother older than Rihanna.

When the lighter fare arrives halfway through this downcast track list, it hardly registers. The crystalline bounce of "Rude Boy" and the playful zip of "Photographs" are buoyant, but neither can touch the club-happy froth that made Rihanna famous.

She seems destined to return to that glitter-dusted dance floor before too long. For now, she's processing publicly. Consider "Rated R" a misstep on the road to recovery.

Download these

"Wait Your Turn," "Rude Boy"

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