In 2019, it’s hard to have a conversation about modern pop and R&B music without mentioning the pop-powerhouse, Rihanna. Born Robyn Fenty, the singer/songwriter is something of an anomaly. Despite 2020 being her fourth year without a studio album release from the artist, Rihanna always seems to remain in the cultural zeitgeist.
At the start of her career, Rihanna was a teenage popstar with radio-friendly records like “Pon De Replay” off her 2005 debut “Music of the Sun,” and “Unfaithful,” the slow, sultry break-up anthem from 2007’s “A Girl Like Me.” But with her fourth studio album, 2009’s “Rated R,” Rihanna aimed to shift the sound and artistic brand into a more adult artist, not afraid to open her life up in a much more real and visceral way. As 10 years have passed since the album’s release, now seems like the perfect time to take a retrospective reanalysis of the project — how has it held up against its contemporaries and what kind of impact did it have on Rihanna’s career?
“Rated R” is an important album for Rihanna, as it was released just nine months after the domestic violence incident involving Rihanna and former boyfriend Chris Brown. It was also the first album from the artist to feature a parental advisory warning on the front cover, signifying a much more hard-edged public persona than fans were accustomed to. The album artwork features striking black and white imagery depicting a leather-clad and black lipstick-wearing Rihanna — a far cry from the usual light-hearted album covers fans were used to seeing. Even the album title itself, “Rated R,” serves to establish a darker, more-mature artistic direction for Rihanna.
This darker tone is present right from the start, with the intro track “MadHouse,” serving as an ominous instrumental complete with booming organs crashing down accompanying the crack of a whip — setting the darker tone perfectly. A booming voice warns all who scare easily to turn away, as Rihanna’s now-signature vocal riffs echo over the ominous soundscape, continuously interjected by crisp synthesizers and dubstep sub-bass. The album floats through a variety of sonics, from hard-hitting, rap-centric anthems like “Wait Your Turn,” “RudeBoy” and “Hard” featuring Atlanta MC Jeezy, to more familiar pop cuts such as “TeAmo”, “G4L” and “Photographs” featuring will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas.
Slash, rock legend of 80s hair-metal group Guns ‘N’ Roses, makes an appearance on the track “Rockstar 101,” one of a couple rock inspired cuts on the record. Although these songs are worth commending for being so far removed from Rihanna’s comfort zone, they end up feeling a bit contrived and underwhelming, with uninspired guitar riffs, uninteresting progressions and overly-long run-times. Rihanna really shines in the emotional ballads from the album, in which she takes her smooth, often intimate, vocal range and applies it to much more mature subject matter. The track “Stupid In Love” discusses emotional and physical abuse, describing a failing relationship being held together by the toxic threads woven by past lovers.
The song “Cold Case Love” is complete with full-orchestral interludes that fill out the space between Rihanna’s emotionally-charged and soulful verses, allowing the listener to take in the weighty lyrics, which are placed over slow bongo drums and spacy electric keyboards. Rihanna compares her abusive relationship to a prison sentence, with lyrics begging her abuser to “let her go” because she’s “served her time.” Moments like this make these songs so emotionally satisfying even 10 years later. The powerfully emotive songwriting coupled with the mature subject matter culminates in a heavy-hitting crescendo at the song’s conclusion.
Oftentimes, songs like “Rude Boy,” “Hard” and “Russian Roulette” are referenced as the tentpole singles from the album, with all of them charting at the time of release. However, it’s truly the soulful, raw moments that remain the high points. “Rated R” had a mixed reception at release, receiving a 6.1 from Pitchfork, a C+ from Consequence of Sound and a three out of five from The Guardian. A full decade later, Rihanna’s other albums like “Loud,” “Good Girl Gone Bad” and her most recent, 2016 release, “ANTI,” are often cited as the artist’s highest points, but it’s important to acknowledge the groundwork that “Rated R” laid for Rihanna’s career.
The emotional songs, powerful vocals and ability to float right from catchy pop singles to bass-heavy rap flows and just as easily slide into poignant love anthems is something Rihanna would go on to refine in the coming years. Despite parts of the album feeling a bit bland or unfinished, the progression is clear and evident.
Only 21 years old at the album’s release, Rihanna set out to reinvent herself as an artist after a sensitive, albeit very public past. “Rated R” is a testament to her evolution, and, moreover, is a testament to being strong — to getting knocked down, getting up and coming back harder than ever. “Rated R” deserves some love on its tenth anniversary, and for many more years to come.