2016’s Anti has a reputation for being Rihanna’s first completely successful album release, but this isn’t entirely fair. While it’s true that Rihanna’s albums have a seriously uneven track record due to her insanely busy release schedule prior to 2014 (she was basically releasing an album every single year for most of her career), she did have a couple of fairly consistent and coherent albums prior to Anti, and 2009’s Rated R was one of them.
For the very few of you who might need reminding, Rihanna’s entire public life at the time was revolving around a scandal where her then-boyfriend, fellow R&B singer Chris Brown, put her in the hospital. I am well aware that, by now, that scandal was already yesterday’s news four years ago, but I am seriously considering adapting my album reviews into a book on Pop music in the 2010s, and that incident did have a great deal of impact on the music of that period, so bear with me.
Rated R was conceived as a kind of vague Concept Album through which Rihanna could directly address what happened to her, and even if Rihanna isn’t really a singer-songwriter, she seems to have found the means to select songs that conveyed her emotions on the subject. The lyrics on the album tended to be rather opaque and confusing (although that might well have been a deliberate choice), but their mix of bittersweet love ballads like “Crazy, Stupid Love” and “Photographs” and the violent imagery on songs like”Russian Roulette” and “Fire Bomb” was certainly possible to interpret if one knew about her circumstances.
In any case, the album as a whole had a dark, brooding atmosphere that suited its nominal topic well. It actually bears a strong resemblance to Anti in many ways…the subject matter of dysfunctional relationships, the sullen, somber ambiance, the frequently biting lyrical content, even the presence of an out-of-place Pop single than was little more than a bid for an easy hit and wound up the album’s primary calling-card despite sounding nothing like the other tracks. It makes a certain kind of sense, in a way…Rated R received a fair amount of critical respect, but its quality was overshadowed by its connection to her personal life. So in 2016, after everyone had more-or-less moved on from that scandal, she made another attempt in the same style, and got attention for an album for the first time in her career.
The album overall is a built on Electro-Pop influences, a change of style for Rihanna that would influence much of her later career, although it does include on Rock song and one Latin-flavored track. The Rock song, featuring legendary Guns’N’Roses guitarist Slash, is in a Grunge vein rather than the Eighties Hard Rock style Slash normally favors, and was criticized by some for not making good use of its famous guest star. However, Rihanna manages to give it a real sense of swagger and menace, and it is she, not Slash, who really carries the song. As for the Latin song, “Te Amo”, it is a deeply bittersweet narrative about a Spanish-speaking girl who falls in love with Rihanna but is rejected, a kind of sadder, more mature alternative to Katy Perry’s hit “I Kissed a Girl” the year before.
The album’s singles had some success in the international market, and the striking Electro-Hip-Hop anthem “Hard” gave Rihanna her thirteenth Top Ten hit on the Billboard charts. However, the album didn’t produce as many hits in the U.S. as her previous work, and by far the most successful song on it was “Rude Boy”, a raunchy, overtly masochistic sex jam quite out of style with the rest of the album. After this song wound up becoming a Number One hit, her record label apparently decided that trying to milk what had happened to her for masochistic sex appeal sold more records than seriously addressing her story (which probably says something very disturbing about popular culture at the time, but I digress).
That brings us to the other subject of this review. 2010’s Loud consisted almost entirely of songs in the vein of “Rude Boy”, except that many of them take its questionable concept much, much farther. This is why it’s probably her worst album…granted, it contains two good tracks, while her next effort, Talk That Talk, would contain only one, but the bad material here is the worst to be found on any Rihanna album.
The primary problem with the songs on this album is not that they’re offensive (although, to be honest, they kind of are). No, the primary problem is that they’re loud, abrasive, overly strident, and would come off as more creepy than sexy even without the added real-life baggage. They fall very much into the trends of the ’09-’10 “Club Boom”, and like most songs of that era they have the sole redeeming element of a catchy beat, but there’s certainly nothing else good about most of them.
“S&M”, where Rihanna is literally singing about how she likes to be tied up and beaten, is easily the worst offender, but songs like “Only Girl (in the World)”, where she invites the listener to “Love me like I’m a hot ride”, or “What’s My Name”, which features an absolutely disgusting Rap verse from Drake with jokes about “The square root of 69”, aren’t much better.
On top of this, for perhaps understandable reasons, Rihanna delivers every one of these songs like she’s dead inside. It’s like hearing a robot trying to sing about sex, and it multiplies the album’s unintentional creepiness by a factor of ten. She’s also in absolutely terrible voice here, making horrible use of her Caribbean vocal inflections and giving what might be the single worst vocal performance of her career on “Cheers (Drink to That)”. This song’s worthlessness is particularly highlighted by fact that two infinitely better songs which are both about exactly the same subject, Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” and Halestorm’s “Here’s To Us”, came out at around the same time.
Probably the strangest item on the album, “Man Down” is about Rihanna actually killing a man who wronged her—there was probably a way to make this song concept satisfying given the circumstances, but this extremely awkward attempt isn’t it.
Even the two aforementioned good songs only serve to make the record as a whole more of a travesty. “California King Bed” is a gorgeous and heartbreaking ballad, and “Love the Way You Lie (pt. 2)” is Rihanna’s collaboration with Eminem (arguably the best hit song of 2010) reworked as an R&B ballad for Rihanna with a single guest verse by Eminem. Her performance is a perfectly fulfilled expansion of her incredibly nuanced delivery on the original, and the result is one of the best songs of her career.
Unfortunately, both these songs are blatantly out of place next to the other songs on the album, and serve not only to highlight the inadequacies of the rest of the material, but to turn the overall flow of the album into a disjointed mess.
There are a couple of other attempts at ‘serious’ songs, which try to mine similar territory to the songs on Rated R, but they don’t really succeed. For example, “Fading”, a breakup ballad very possibly aimed at the aforementioned abusive ex-boyfriend, is too lightweight and bland to make any real impact, coming off as forgettable album filler. And “Complicated”, another breakup song that resembles a serious version of Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold”, might be the most unlistenable song on the album, with its skin-crawling beat and nails-on-chalkboard vocals.
Given the utterly ridiculous furor the internet raised over the far more innocuous “Blurred Lines” in 2013, I imagine that, had this album come out a few years later than it did, the reaction to it would probably have been much harsher. In any case, Rated R still ranks as a minor classic, but Loud is a bad album as well as an offensive one, and even those who no longer care in the slightest about the years-old scandal that wound up birthing it can find an abundance of reasons to hate it based on the music alone.