Ten Years Later, Rihanna's 'Rated R' Album Remains A Mini Movie, Magnum Opus And Masterclass In Misogynoir
'Rated R' is Rihanna's most masterful record to date.
It was November of 2009. How did Rihanna retain her status as a pop diva, cement her position as a serious musical artist and navigate a traumatic ordeal under the public eye? The answer was Rated R — her fourth studio album.
I was 16-years-old when reports surfaced that Rihanna had experienced a domestic assault at the hands of her then-boyfriend, R&B crooner Chris Brown. Like many of my peers, who came of age during the infancy of social media, pop culture and celebrity fandom were pretty much the two main conversation starters both on and offline.
The discourse surrounding Rihanna and Chris Brown was a hot button topic in my high school, particularly my 11th grade science class. On the few days when we’d have a substitute teacher, whose idea of work really didn’t stretch past taking attendance and assigning basic science questions, we’d arrange our desks together and discuss many of our pop and R&B faves. At the time: Beyonce, Keri Hilson, Usher, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown and, of course, Rihanna were the go-to names.
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When the convo spun around to the last two musicians, many around me were quick to question Rihanna’s role in her own assault. Most of my classmates sided with Chris and assumed that Rihanna did something to provoke him. The misogynoir surrounding Rihanna was eye-opening.
Two years earlier, the singer had undergone a shocking metamorphosis with the release of her third album Good Girl Gone Bad. Donning a jet black bob, Rihanna came equipped with a bevy of hits to accompany her new image — “Umbrella,” “Rehab,” “Disturbia,” “Don’t Stop The Music” and “Take A Bow.” As a regular presence in the upper echelon of the Billboard charts from 2007 to 2008, Rihanna had solidified her place as the next great pop diva and manifested a new chapter as the “Black Madonna” for the millennial generation.
However, in spite of the cohesiveness and critical acclaim of Good Girl Gone Bad, Rihanna still had her detractors who dismissed her as another pop diva rather than a serious musical artist — until Rated R.
Released ten years ago on November 20, the album —Rihanna’s best and boldest to date — remains a dark portrait of a Black woman’s journey to self healing and a template for the bold, unapologetic pop star we know today. To put it in layman’s terms, Rated R walked so ANTI could run.
Artists such as Madonna and Janet Jackson have proven that you can be both a pop diva and a serious musical artist. The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Jackson, whom Rihanna has cited as an influence, displayed a knack for creating a confessional vibe in her music. Rihanna is no different. If Good Girl Gone Bad was Rihanna’s version of Control, then Rated R was her The Velvet Rope.
Coincidentally, the album artwork for Rated R was shot by Ellen von Unwerth, who also shot the album cover for The Velvet Rope. With the new album came a new image. Gone was the jet black hair and in came a new blonde mohawk and Grace Jones-esque attire. With the help of creative director Simon Henwood, the Rihanna of the Rated R era was a gothic heroine who looked ready and made for the world of dystopian science fiction.
Thematically, Rated R is the cinematic equivalent of a psychological thriller and Rihanna is our final girl. A drastic departure from the dancefloor ready Good Girl Gone Bad, Rated R contains elements of dubstep, hip-hop and rock and roll. “Mad House,” — the album’s intro — opens up with a man’s voice advising listeners who are easily frightened to turn away and welcoming those who can take it into Rihanna’s psyche. The album wastes no time establishing its dark and chilly atmosphere.
On “Wait Your Turn,” Rihanna establishes herself as a woman keenly aware of her impact and status as a newly minted pop diva. Incorporating elements of dubstep and hip-hop, the track and its accompanying music video showcases Rihanna’s bravado.
“I pitch with a grenade, swing away if you're feeling brave / There's so much power in my name, if you pop off and you say it stadium gon' do the wave.”
YouTube | Rihanna
“That Rihanna reign just won’t let up,” Rihanna says many times throughout “Hard,” the album’s second song and single. The hard-hitting hip-hop single, featuring a rap by Jeezy, peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January of 2010.
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With “Wait Your Turn” and “Hard,” the Rihanna of the Rated R era had established herself as a self-assured woman who perseveres even in the bleakest of circumstances. She conquers her traumas and takes control of her own narrative. Rihanna makes it loud and clear that she will not relinquish herself to the "victim" role mainstream media tried to assign her in the aftermath of her ordeal. The singer says it herself on the rock-tinged "Rockstar 101," "I never play the victim, I'd rather play the stalker."
YouTube | Rihanna
However, Rihanna still gives herself room to be vulnerable. On the R&B flavored "Stupid In Love," she chastises the man who insists on repeatedly telling her lies and degrading her. However, she still admits that she's in love with him. On "Photographs" — one of the album's many standout tracks— Rihanna mourns the loss of her relationship and acknowledges feelings of nostalgia, regret and separation. Although Rihanna acknowledges she’s still in love with her beau, never once throughout Rated R does she undermine the fact the he seriously wronged her.
“Russian Roulette,” the album’s acclaimed first single, talks about how the game of love is often a fatal game of choice, using Russian roulette as its metaphor. Over a pulsing rhythm that eerily resembles the sound of a heartbeat, Rihanna sings of being in fear for her life . Peaking at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, the single and its dark music video proved that risks can pay off.
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Together with director Anthony Mandler, Rihanna crafted a psychological thriller that was seemingly lifted from the horror minds of filmmakers David Cronenberg and David Lynch, in both its tone and its imagery. The video for "Russian Roulette" opens up with a hooded Rihanna lying in a padded cell under the watchful eye of three men in dark uniforms. The video then cuts to a scene in which Rihanna plays the titular game with her love interest and another scene in which a car speeds towards her. At one point, there’s a visually stunning scene of Rihanna submerged underwater while gracefully dodging a barrage of bullets. Whether the events taking place in the "Russian Roulette" video are real is up for interpretation, but the clip feels like an odyssey into the darkest corners of Rihanna's imagination.
We would be remiss if we categorized Rated R as just an angry album. Besides an array of new musical genres, Rihanna goes through an array of emotions as well. She's fearless, frightened, vengeful ("G4L" and "Fire Bomb”), defiant, braggadocious, heartbroken, lovelorn ("Cold Case Love") and lustful.
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"Rude Boy," the album's sole upbeat track and chart topping single, showcases Rihanna in her comfort zone of dancehall music. The album's final single, "Te Amo,"presents Rihanna as the object of affection from another woman. Rihanna doesn't directly address her attack by Brown to listeners, but she hardly ignores it. By showcasing a variety of emotions that listeners could color as carefully crafted allusions to her ordeal, Rihanna had laid her wounds bare for all to see.
YouTube | Rihanna
The day after Rihanna’s highly publicized interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20, I distinctly remember one of my high school classmates chastising the singer for what she perceived as “exposing” the circumstances surrounding her assault. But Rihanna was merely telling her truth.
Ironically, many of my peers at the time did not scrutinize Brown in the way they did Rihanna, despite his multiple appearances on Good Morning America, 106 & Park and Larry King Live, where the R&B crooner claimed he did not remember his assault on Rihanna. Brown would later retract his statements, but had fallen into the good graces of my peers by then. The situation was a prime example of how Black women are often blamed for the inappropriate actions of Black men, despite being on the receiving end of toxic behavior. Despite the media scrutiny that surrounded her at the time, it's fair to say that Rihanna had the last laugh.
Peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart, Rated R was well received by many critics, with some deeming it the best album of Rihanna's career. Ten years later, the album's eclectic mix of dubstep, hip-hop, rock, pop and R&B still sounds as fresh and new age as it did when it was first released.