Rating: 4/5 stars
Pros: "Rated R" should continue Rihanna's streak of smash hit singles.
Cons: Her reliance on song-writers leaves the album's intended message vague and unclear.
Bottom Line: Rihanna rebounds from personal struggles to remain one of the biggest stars in music.
Hard (ft. Jeezy)
There is no way to review Rihanna's new album Rated R without mentioning Chris Brown. After what happened earlier this year, their relationship is the proverbial elephant in the room.
The lead single "Russian Roulette" ("Know that I must pass this test / So I just pull the trigger") and its dark metaphor for love? The anthemic songs about how great she is on her own and the reflective ballads about love that every R&B album has? While she rarely explicits mentions their relationship, almost everything about Rated R could be plausibly be interpreted to be about Brown in some way.
It's unfortunate, because Rated R should be judged on its own merits. Rihanna has become one of the most consistent hit-makers in pop music, and this album continues that trend. Five or six songs could easily be top 10 singles -- from the Jeezy- and Slash-assisted club smashes ("Hard" and "Rockstar 101" respectively) to the slower ballads ("Fire Bomb" and "Te Amo") and songs that ably mix both styles ("Photographs" and "Wait Your Turn").
Almost every one of the album's 12 songs has a strong, memorable and catchy chorus. A superstar group of producers and songwriters -- headlined by StarGate, the team behind "So Sick" and "Unfaithful" -- give Rihanna a varied musical backdrop (from slow pianos to R&B-tinged guitars and electronic club music) that still fits together cohesively. This allows Rihanna to stretch herself as a singer like she never has before.
Rated R should only further establish Rihanna as one of music's pre-eminent superstars. And as for Chris Brown, maybe that's the only message she needs to send -- success is still the best revenge.