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Rihanna turns dark on 'Rated R'

BY SASHA RESENDE
Daily Arts Writer
Published November 22, 2009

If 2007’s breakthrough hit Good Girl Gone Bad positioned then-19-year-old Rihanna as a carefree pop star, her newest release effectively blows away that sugary persona. With Rated R, the Barbadian artist’s fourth full-length studio effort, Rihanna eschews the feel-good “Umbrella”-style hits that made her an industry favorite, instead choosing to pursue a darker — and arguably more mature — sound. While her latest effort clearly marks a new era in the singer’s performing career, it seems to be less accessible than her preceding efforts and is probably less likely to make an indelible mark on American pop music.

Considering the year Rihanna has had, it isn’t surprising to see the star shedding her upbeat, radio-friendly exterior for a more somber demeanor. The artist first began recording songs for Rated R in early 2009, soon after the tumultuous fallout from her hyper-public assault at the hands of then-boyfriend Chris Brown.

Several of the album’s collaborators have stated that the singer requested a darker edge for her new album. This moody feel is evident on the album’s first single “Russian Roulette,” a somber, beat-driven ballad that is strikingly different from any single Rihanna has released before. Chuck Harmony, who produced the track, said the two purposefully pursued "something a little darker, something a little edgier, something a little more morbid” for the lead single.

The ballad, which employs reckless gunplay as a not-so-subtle metaphor for a troubled relationship, achieves its seemingly morbid intent but in turn sacrifices the singer’s knack for easily digestible dance-pop anthems. While it’s likely that Rihanna released the track as a bold attempt to both shock fans and introduce them to her newer, darker sound, the single is more likely to push away devotees from her “Disturbia” era than to welcome new listeners into the fold.

The album as a whole follows the framework set by its lead single, as Rihanna channels her inner emo side with brooding ballads and truly tragic references to her past relationship with Brown. On the bleak, piano-driven “Stupid In Love,” Rihanna candidly recounts her past love life, while repeatedly calling herself “stupid” throughout the song’s chorus. It’s more than a little unsettling when she belts in her pitch-perfect voice, “Don’t understand it / blood on your hands / And still you insist on trying to tell me lies.” By relying on the shock value of her publicly abusive ex-relationship, Rihanna manages to raise eyebrows, but her taste is questionable.

At times, Rated R shows glimpses of the power jams that made Rihanna a renowned pop hit-maker. The Stargate-produced “Rude Boy” is the closest the album gets to a bona fide club rager. “Rockstar 101,” which features a guitar cameo by Slash, is another beat-heavy banger with radio potential. The song gives Rihanna the edge she is looking for, although it seems a little out-of-place when the singer repeatedly refers to herself as a “rock star” and a “big shit talker.”

One of the album’s more promising cuts is “G4L” (produced by Chase & Status), a synth-driven wonder that showcases Rihanna’s more macabre side, boasting repeated references to gangsters and guns without compromising her pop sensibility. By promoting strong beats over downtrodden lyrics, the song encapsulates the qualities that made Rihanna a star, but still highlights her newest album’s shortcomings.

With a not-so-homogenous mix of Whitney Houston-style ballads and the occasional quirky dance beat, Rihanna’s latest is a definite turn from the poppy club hits that have defined her career thus far. Although the singer had hoped to strengthen her image as a dark and brooding pop tart, Rated R proves the songstress is better suited to vocalizing demurely about umbrellas.