What a difference a break makes. One album and one particularly icky bit of real life later, and suddenly Rihanna is no longer, as we reported in our review for Good Girl Gone Bad, "unequivocally a singles artist." In response to circumstances beyond her control, the pop star many had preemptively compared to the likes of Janet Jackson finally pockets her own private Velvet Rope. Both albums radiate an unmistakably, nakedly autobiographical vibe, but in the end, both leave you with more questions than answers. They're cagey, teasing, taciturn confessionals. The elisions within both records exist because that which would fill in those blanks already overshadows anything content that would surround them. The difference is that Janet's album was a stab at self-fulfillment; Rihanna's is coded like an interlude of self-abnegation. Rated R for "real" or Rated R for "reclusive"?
Anyone who caught Ri's interview with Diane Sawyer a few weeks back can empathize with or, at the very least, recognize what a fine line the still excruciatingly young star must walk at this precise moment. She firmly told Sawyer, "I am strong…This happened to me." But she also admitted that her reasons for walking away from Chris Brown after refractory dalliances were in deference to the superego of pop culture, not because she fell immediately out of love with Brown. She didn't want the death of some other little girl on her head, simply because her hypothetical forgiveness of Brown's weak act could be construed as an endorsement. And thus, she's put into the position of living outside of her own instincts. "F love," she explained, as close to the verge of tears as she allowed herself to come. Rated R is the dissociative fallout of that decision.
In short, Rihanna don't feel much like dancing no more. Leave that sort of soft shoe to the defense. Twelve and a half tracks, and not one is likely to help those looking for a new groove with which to force their bridesmaids and groomsmen to one-two step their way down the aisle. She may not ever call Brown out by name or by act, but her promise that she's "got my middle finger up/I don't really give a fuck" is a calculated blow against his brand of sunny R&B-lite, as devastating in its own way as her telling Sawyer she's "embarrassed" that she could fall in love with someone like him. Like a musical reenactment of Newton's third law of (e)motion, Rated R is 100-percent grit and grind. "The lovers need to clear the road," she warns in the galvanizing "Fire Bomb," which distills Rihanna's state of mind into a single violent image: Her, driving an out-of-control hot rod, already leaking flames and careening toward the front window of the man whose face she can't wait to see as she crashes into it, killing both in a blaze of glory. That this sentiment comes attached to the closest musical approximation of triumph (sounding a little bit like "Umbrella" covered by Roxette) should give you a solid indication of how Rated R plays. Or doesn't.
"Russian Roulette," the morose leadoff single, is a little bit more abstruse in its you-or-me dialectic, and the initial reaction has been predictably confused. Backed by a spare piano-and-bass drone, embellished only by the sound of rolling dice, "Roulette" is the recalcitrant flipside to the finality of "Fire Bomb." In the video, Rihanna at one point literally wears her heart on her sleeve—or thereabouts. And if the song's wavering admissions of being "terrified" are conveyed vis-à-vis the ultimate in "out of my hands" metaphors, well, it may also be the song that cuts closest to the mark. Any objectors can take solace in the fact that the two songs are sequenced in satisfactory order on the album: first comes the guilt of "Russian Roulette," then comes the retribution of "Fire Bomb."
The first six full songs of Rated R (following the "Thriller"-nodding introductory "Mad House") are grim and relentless. Even the token ballad in their midst concludes, "I may be dumb, but I'm not stupid in love." And the rest are littered with snatches of rock guitar and sentiments like "I'm such a fucking lady." This 25-minute opening salvo is so direct, it's sort of disillusioning that the second half is, psychologically speaking, a total retrenchment, starting off with the ill-advised rough-sex jam "Rude Boy" and reaching a peak with "Te Amo," an appraisal of one possible romantic alternative to men like Brown: women like Brown. Though Rihanna's flirtation is touching, it's also ultimately dead-ended. Far be it from me to force a sexual orientation on someone when it doesn't fit, but at least when Janet brought a new deck to the table in Velvet Rope's cover of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," she let her fingers do the walking.
Again, though, it's all symptomatic of the difference between the two albums. Velvet Rope craved for experience and a broadening of previously limited horizons, whereas Rated R just needs some time to think. Velvet Rope wanted desperately to be thought of as a brave album, while Rated R doesn't really care what you think of it. When Janet's album ended with the singer tagging it a "work in progress," you wanted desperately to believe her. When Rated R ends on an unresolved chord, the sentiment carries over into Rihanna's pop persona. Let's hope that this doesn't mean she's about to back off and start working on her All for You.