Rated R

Rated R

“That Rihanna reign just won’t let up,” Rihanna confidently boasts on “Hard,” the third track on her fourth album. The statement was undeniable. At the top of 2009, she found herself thrown into a media circus following a highly publicized domestic violence incident with then-boyfriend Chris Brown. But rather than go into hiding, the pop star fearlessly stared trauma in the face. Rated R, the singer’s fourth album, found her channeling Janet Jackson’s Control as she not only redefined her artistic identity, but also reclaimed her narrative as a woman. Her most personal album to date, Rated R is more like a therapy session filled with raw and often uncomfortable honesty. A darker, unnerving energy engulfs the album, with Rihanna juggling various bouts of vitriol, revenge, faith, and freedom. It’s here where she officially births her “bad gal” persona. There were hints of it during 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad era (from slicing her hair into a dark bob to singing over edgier production), but Rated R unveils the complete transformation. The majority of Rated R finds Rihanna trying to navigate how she moves on from such a publicized and personal moment. In contrast to previous albums, she’s now developed a rock-hard shell. But she still allows listeners to crack it open as she pours out her soul in ballads more than ever. “Stupid in Love” is a confessional ballad where she struggles to let go of a toxic flame, while the will.i.am-assisted “Photographs” reminisces on a happier time. “Fire Bomb” is the album’s highlight: one of her most underrated and vulnerable songs, in which she details just how torturous love can become if you’re not careful. One thing that Rihanna didn’t want to be portrayed as was weak. She explicitly states this on “Rockstar 101” atop sharp electric-guitar taunts: “I never play the victim, I’d rather be a stalker.” She’s tough as nails on the militant “Hard,” where she assures that her pop-star crown will never falter (“Brilliant, resilient, fan mail from 27 million”). On “G4L”—or “Gangster 4 L”—she becomes the vengeful aggressor as she and her crew take matters into their own hands (it’s also where the Rihanna Navy fanbase name was officiated). But despite the tougher exterior, Rihanna still reminded everyone that she could craft hits with ease: the flirtatious, dancehall-inspired “Rude Boy” danced itself to a No. 1 smash, “Hard” became her 13th Top 10, and the amorous Latin fantasy of “Te Amo” was beloved on international charts. Rated R is Rihanna’s rebel yell. She completely dismissed any mainstream appeal left over from her previous releases and remained true to her identity. It set the tone for what would come for future albums, where she would continue to experiment with various genres and be even more willing to share her most intimate thoughts without a care about what critics thought. No one else could tell Rihanna’s story but her, and that very tenacity is just why she remains an unshakeable pop icon.

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