Friday, December 18, 2009

Rihanna - Rated R

"And then I get a scary thought / That if he's here it means he never lost"

During the first track from Rihanna's Rated R album you hear the loop of a male voice saying "Welcome to the mad house". At this point you know you're not in for another dance record extravaganza, you are here for a dark experience. It's not often that one of the most commercial and radio-friendly artists out there gives her middle finger up to her label and composes a record based on her own artistic view rather than a collection of possible singles. Such is the case with the new Rihanna material, one of the most intriguing and deep records I've heard in a while. There was a true effort in creating a coherent album here, one that explores her feelings after the turbulence of her personal life in the past year.

After the Mad House intro you're taken directly into Wait Your Turn, a Chase & Status produced track that cleverly bridges London's dubstep sounds with r&b melodies. It's one of the best songs on the record and it contains some of the best lines I've heard in pop music for a while: I'm such a fucking lady (she wanted to name the album Rihanna - Such a Fucking Lady but retailers quickly backed out). The new single (Hard) follows and it features Young Jeezy. It's a mid-tempo "fuck you I will do whatever I want to" kind of song that works really well. I also sense a bit of a crescendo in the track taken directly from Madonna & Justin's 4 Minutes song. Stupid In Love comes next, the first ballad in the package. It marks the moment where she actually starts to discuss what happened ("my new nickname is You Idiot"). It's short and sweet, the instrumental is minimal and by the book, enough for us to pay attention to the words.

From here on the record gets harder and she starts to walk the line of danger a bit more. Russian Roulette, the controversial single that has left everyone talking, is simply amazing. I love the lyrics (comparing the danger of a relationship with the russian roulette game) and I love even more the production. Everything works: there's tension, there's suffering in her voice, there's a minimalistic and confessional overtone and a dramatic ending. It's a very cinematic and strong track and I can see why it was chosen as single (even if a risky choice, because it's light years away from the mood of her previous singles).

Rude Boy, produced by Norwegian duo Stargate, is another stand-out moment. It's a sexy-as-hell beat infused track made to make you sweat. It kind of reminds me of Grace Jones Pull Up To The Bumper hit, with the same kind of in your face sexiness and caribbean appeal (I should also mention that Rihanna seems to be channeling Grace Jones visually nowadays, the album artwork reminds me a lot of this). Photographs, the Will.I.Am collaboration is also a winner and I suspect it might become the biggest hit on the package. Very stylish, vocoder-heavy mid-tempo song, with all the tricks du jour that are hot in american radio right now. There's also another great dupstep infused moment in G4L where she sings "I lick the gun in the end 'cause I know that revenge is sweet" and a Justin Timberlake track (Cold Case Love), a very soulful and actually quite beautiful song that is worthy of mention, even if she struggles to carry it on well (one is left to imagine how would it sound if Justin had recorded it).

Not that the album doesn't have its own trappings: Rockstar 101 (featuring Slash - really, why?!?) is simply silly, the latin inspired Te Amo is easily forgettable and the rock-FM moment of Fire Bomb doesn't connect with the rest of the record. Surely if they had cut the album shorter it would be a better album but I still feel that Rated R is one of the most intriguing pop records out at the moment. Not only it encapsulates really well the moment in the life of the artist, but it is also really brilliantly produced with some ambitious songs opening territories for others to follow (Wait Your Turn, G4L). She will surely be doing another dance record next, but Rated R will remain as a hell of an interesting moment in Rihanna's discography.

Check out her dramatic live performance of Russian Roulette in the UK television below. And, my god, could she more pretty?

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