Somewhere in between America’s Sweetheart and America’s Next Top Model lives Rihanna, and a lot of the reaction to Rated R relies on where the individual listener places her on that spectrum. Frankly, what we've seen of Rihanna's day-to-day personality has never matched the pitch of her stage presence, but it never seemed like we were missing anything so no one really cared. Of course, that was before The Incident, and whether you're the gossipy type who wants every juicy detail or you'd prefer to just leave her alone, it's impossible to not let real world events creep into the music.
Rihanna herself doesn't do much to help the situation—she’s mostly shied away from discussing these things publicly, but especially after her recent willingness to open up, it isn’t clear if Rated R is supposed to be an Usher-style confession or a Britney-like distraction. If we’re to take the music literally, a lot of it frankly feels off-putting and ridiculous. Vampy selections like “Wait Your Turn” just don’t match the prim and proper young lady we see on the cover of Glamour. The album overall has a fairly dark tone so it’s hard to hear her push trough lines like “what if I gave you a chance to make things right” on “Stupid in Love” without thinking about You Know Who. There’s really nothing in the song that seems very specific to anything she’s gone through, but in the context of the real world, even a generic break-up song comes off as pointed, if not uncomfortably personal. If we're to take her words as an actual expression of her feelings, then she may be cracking up
On the other hand, if Rihanna is less an artist and more of a conduit for others’ visions, the work is somewhat easier to swallow. When Rihanna melodramatically sings “I lick the gun when I’m done ‘cause I know that revenge is sweet” on “G4L,” it's less abrasive if you see her as playing a role rather than trying to convince anyone that she's a real gangsta 4 life. Rated R has an aesthetic quality that makes the album better than the sum of the parts, even if it's hard to shake the feeling that you're witnessing a nervous breakdown. The few relatively happy tracks (“Te Amo”) end up being the ones that distract since, by the time they come around, the attitude of “Rockstar 101” or “Hard” have already set the mood to “pissed of” instead of “in love."
Yes, that bad mood is exactly what you'd expect either way, but anger as performance is easier to witness than anger as catharsis so the intention needs to be clarified more than she ever does. Is the music good? Sure, why not? As Rihanna's albums go, Rated R is probably the least deliberately Pop-y so it's worth considering even if you're not a fan of her old work. Of course, if you are a fan of her old work, you may miss the smiles, even if they always felt a little forced. It can also be said that this more serious setting serves to expose Rihanna's deficiencies as a singer but this issue is probably irrelevant by her fourth album—you know what she sounds like.
Rihanna's role has historically been that of a singing mannequin for talented writers to hang their work on. For reasons that aren't entirely her fault, however, the more we become acquainted with the real person, the more apparent it becomes that we were better off with the character. Rihanna has several long-players already, but they've all been released in a short amount of time so it's not unreasonable to say that she needs more time to evolve. With that said, what she seems to be evolving into still doesn't have the spectacle of Lady Gaga, the glamor of Beyonce or the passion of Alicia Keys so her role in the Pop landscape is becoming unclear. Nevertheless, she's still got time left to figure it out and while she's still yet to release a truly great album, she's still doing enough to hold our attentions.