Shocking pictures of Rihanna’s badly beaten face were among the most startling news images of 2009. Her attacker, then-boyfriend Chris Brown, was eventually convicted of felony assault. In the months that followed, Rihanna said little about the incident.
Now the 21-year-old Barbados-born singer has been saying she doesn’t want the incident to define how people see her. Still, it’s clear that what happened isn’t something Rihanna’s been able to shrug off easily (nor should it be, for that matter). "The bruises fade away," she told GQ magazine. "But the thing that stays with you is the emotional scars." The 13 songs on Rated R offer plentiful, painful—and angry—evidence of that.
Rihanna demonstrates a willingness to persevere on "Wait Your Turn" ("Sometimes it takes a thousand tries to win") and recognizes that "no pain is forever" on "Hard." She lets down her emotional defenses a bit on "Stupid in Love," a song in which she ponders the tension between her emotions ("I still love you") and her knowledge that she needs out of a bad relationship ("But I just can’t do this/I may be dumb/But I’m not stupid").
Three other tracks address difficult breakups ("Photograph," "The Last Song" and "Cold Case Love"). On the latter, Rihanna perhaps alludes to Chris Brown in these lines: "What you did to me was a crime/ … And I let you reach me one more time/But that’s enough." She later acknowledges that her emotional confusion blinded her to the truth that "your love ain’t the kind you can keep."
Moments of healthy reflection on Rated R, however, get utterly trammeled by vented rage and dangerous sexuality.
"Wait Your Turn" brags, "I pitch with a grenade/Swing away if you’re feeling brave." Then Rihanna adds, "I’m such a f‑‑‑in’ lady." She glories in being hardened by life (and sings the s-word) on "Hard." "Fire Bomb" informs an ex that she can’t wait to plow her car into his house and blow it up ("I just wanna set you on fire/So I won’t have to burn alone").
Another cocktail of violence and "love" turns up on "Russian Roulette," which graphically describes playing that deadly game to impress a guy ("Know that I must pass this test/So just pull the trigger"). Rihanna has said the song is a metaphor for gambling on a dangerous relationship—but nothing in the song itself clearly suggests this slightly softer interpretation.
Brazen rebellion is the subject of "Rockstar 101" ("Rocking this club/Got my middle finger up/I don’t really give a f‑‑‑/ … I’m a rock star"). More harsh profanity (including a pairing of "mother" with the f-word) again mingles with threats of violence and sexually suggestive lyrics on "GL4." "Rude Boy" finds Rihanna crudely propositioning a man for rough sex ("I like the way you pull my hair"). "Te Amo" relates the end of a romantic relationship between two women.
Liner notes are full of pictures of Rihanna wearing lingerie, barbed wire or, well, nothing at all as she strikes angry poses and smokes.
Huffington Post music reviewer Mike Ragogna said of Rihanna’s latest, "Rated R takes a walk on the primal side." Then he rightly concluded, "If these songs were any darker or more pointed in attitude, this album might have had to have been titled Rated NC-17."