Oh everyone was on board with Rihanna’s last album “Loud”, certainly the single-buying public, who turned our Riri from a nondescript dancehall debutante to one of the premier pop/dance/urban crossover titans in the world, all within little more than half a decade. While the Rihanna machine seems content for now to rinse a few (million) dollars out of her current momentum with the hastily-assembled “Talk that talk” album, I decided I’d have a few spins of the less mainstream “Rated R”.
Released between her hit-laden “Good girl gone bad” and “Loud” albums, it’s an altogether less commercial venture. Perhaps that’s not what the public wanted at the time, though it had enough hit potential in its singles to take a few chances without de-railing the juggernaut of Rihanna’s career. Actually, aren’t juggernauts trucks, so you can’t really de-rail one? Nevertheless, here we are.
07 Mad House – A creepy effect on this one, like a distorted dog barking. Dracula’s organ (!) and a spoken intro sets a dark tone for the album, but the synthy hooks reassure me that this isn’t going to be an art piece with no singles…
07 Wait your turn – So the urban side of Rihanna is definitely showing here now, with a smooth but deceptively rich sound, beat-driven but still full of synths. The chorus doesn’t quite have the bounce I’m used to from her, but it suits her voice. It’s not bad, and the chorus is simple but catchy. Listenable but only OK.
07 Hard – The second single in many territories, and I’ve heard many people raving about this, but I’m not sure about it. I’ll hold my hands up, I’ve never been a massive fan of the urban scene, it’s just not to my tastes a lot of the time. Female singers usually stand the best chance of perking my ears up, but it doesn’t quite come off here. There’s a lovely throbbing synth at the heart of the backing here, and I see how it got a single status Stateside.
08 Stupid in love – A piano-led ballad now, perhaps more my territory. It’s not a patch on Unfaithful in my opinion, but her voice is still strong on this. I love the bridge for this, but the chorus is perhaps a bit too simplistic, almost to a nursery rhyme melody. That does cost the overall product, but it’s a solid piece. I do like these sort of confessional tracks, she’ll never be a songbird, but her voice definitely has a quality to it.
05 Rockstar 101 – Hmm with the harder sound to this album, the least appealing features are these sort of rock-urban crossovers, this time inviting Guns’n’Roses’ Slash to accompany the action. I can’t say I like this too much, the melody is a bit one-note, the climax doesn’t really get anywhere interesting, and I don’t really get why she’s trying to establish her as a rockstar, probably one of the few things she isn’t…
10 Russian Roulette – Now THIS is more like it. Lead single (at least for the UK), and it’s a difficult one from a girl who had most recently released poptastic singles like Umbrella and Disturbia. A sparse but atmospheric track, with a really spinechilling chorus. She doesn’t need to hit any impressive notes, but the purity of those notes contrasts really well with the less vocally-inclined rockier songs we’ve had before. That middle-eight really does bring things smoothly to a great climax. It’s difficult to say why I like this so much, it wasn’t an immediately appealing song at all, but now I rank it as one of her best, and an interesting entry to her catalogue.
09 Fire Bomb – Such dramatic song titles aren’t they? Actually this turns into a pretty laid-back MOR guitar ballad, a bit 80s even. Those verses are rapid-fire, I love it. That memorable chorus really does it for me, just this warm feeling to it, not harsh like some of the band-driven songs we’ve had already. Intimate and lovable, I really like this.
09 Rude Boy – To continue the recovery in this album, how about this striking single that reverse the album’s fortunes in many countries. It’s difficult to have avoided this one, particularly that gloriously colourful video. This chorus is massively singable, and those choice lines like “Boy I want want want what you want want want” really stayed with me. Proof that she doesn’t need to go for the pop hit to have big success (though it does help).
05 Photographs – I’m still not sure about will.i.am, not that it’ll make much difference, he seems to duet with pretty much anyone these days so he’s all but inescapable. Don’t really like the first verse that is a bit low on vocal energy. That chorus is even more boring, I’m not really into this one at all.
06 G4L – What’s this? An edgy abbreviation for Gangsta 4 Life? Ho hum … we recede back into the choppy dark waters of these intense urban tracks. It’s got quite a lush synthy backdrop, that does help the melody along, but it’s all a bit muddled. Not really getting a lot of out of this one, sadly.
08 Te Amo – A late single now, for those territories that found the Rihanna release schedule a bit less rapid-fire than we were used to. Lesbians afoot too! Foreign ones, hitting on our heroine, with Rihanna doing her best to discourage some girl’s amorous advances in a foreign language. That latin rhythm really sets it apart from other songs on this album, and it’s a pretty smooth memorable listen. Not an obvious single admittedly, but it’s really grown on me.
06 Cold case love – What’s this going to be about, corpse love? Let’s hope not. It’s a bit of a drag at 6 minutes long, and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere quickly. It’s a nice subtle production, with some violin, piano, bongo drum things, it’s surprisingly simple after the boombastic urban stylings of the bulk of this album. I’m just not sure why it had to be so long. It’s not a bad song in itself, it just outstays its welcome, even if it does beef up the beats near the end, thanks to the hand of Justin Timberlake’s production outfit (he’s certainly learnt a lot from Timbaland…).
07 The last song – Well an appropriate title definitely, as we reach the end of this surprisingly short album (51 minutes for 13 tracks?). Another slow burner, but there are a few nice moments, mostly in the (difficult to spot) chorus. Her voice is stretched, even if the melody is a bit lost. There’s a nice melancholy to it, and a middle-eight is a rousing climax, but that axe solo is a bit dated for me. I’ve heard worse last songs.
I did try to go into this with an open mind, and I think for the most part I succeeded, though knowing what she was capable in the field of pop music it was almost annoying that we ended up with a faintly self-indulgent statement record. Not that it’s bad or difficult to listen to, but it’s not pitched in my direction anyway, so it’s not an unexpected conclusion to arrive at. It’s certainly a brave (or misguided) move to take an artist in after such a massive commercial success as Good Girl Gone Bad. So not a bad album really, just not for me. Great singles though.
Keepers for the iPod: Russian Roulette, Fire bomb, Rude Boy, Te Amo