As reductive as it seems to immediately refer to the obvious in a review of Rihanna's latest effort, there's an undeniable causation at work. Quite accustomed to releasing one smash single after another, here she puts out a somewhat less commercial, more statement-oriented set of songs with a great deal more anger than we're accustomed to from her (did she just say "I'm such a fucking lady"?). Contrary to her earlier, much poppier work, the scenario of young girls skipping along singing, "I lick the gun when I'm done 'cause I know that revenge is sweet" is incredibly unlikely. Cathartic while it may be for her, Rated R can be very alienating; some songs sound so personal that one can't help but feel slightly uncomfortable listening (which could well be what the warning at the album's start felt necessary to advise; it does sound rather unironic to begin with), while others take the exact opposite approach with a braggart swagger that feels even more uncharacteristic. However, there's a cold, robotic feel throughout that holds it all together, and despite how nearly two-dimensioned the songs are, the album is more cohesive than one might think.
The first song after the introduction is Wait Your Turn, which is one of the most, again, robotic sounding songs on the record. The following Hard does have a very good hook in the chorus, but while the boastful role doesn't sound postured per se, it just seems somewhat ill-fitting. Still, she delivers it with such admirable confidence that it's still difficult to not be entertained.
The momentum, however, is quickly halted by the first ballad, Stupid in Love. The production deserves credit for making this, as well as the like-minded Photographs, fit in with the rest of the tracks, because ultimately they sound less genuine than the more, aggressive, anger fueled songs (though the latter has a great midsection in which will.i.am injects a much needed break in melody). Fire Bomb is a good example; musically, it sounds almost like 80's metal meets R&B topped with Rihanna's unfailingly pleasant voice, and her car crash explosion metaphor (or maybe a literal morbid fantasy?) is beautifully expressed with lines like "I just want to set you on fire so I won't have to burn alone."
Rude Boy's dancehall-meets-new jack swing groove sounds more single-worthy (though less representative of the album) than the startlingly literal and slightly over dramatic Russian Roulette, which is complete with crawling synths and a concluding gunshot. Also on tracks like G4L, you get the sense it might be enjoyable if it wasn't so easy to imagine as a personal ode; I'm not going to lie, that song made me almost as uneasy as Eminem's Kim.
...okay, well not quite, but close enough.
Rated R finishes strong, though; despite a groan inducing drum break straight from In the Air Tonight, which barely even fits in the song, Cold Case Love nails the dark mood without sounding too personal or streamlined. It serves as a perfect setup for The Last Song, which is an appropriate closer in terms of title as well as substance. Like its predecessor, it's just vague enough to be impersonal and still come across as a song written out of genuine heartache.
Even more unexpected than anything else here is the fact that there aren't really any memorable singles, which has been Rihanna's forte ever since she first emerged with Pon de Replay back in 2005. Even the most accessible songs on the set are missing the snappiness of pretty much anything on Good Girl Gone Bad; the midtempo numbers that dominate Rated R could prove to be too brooding for pop radio, and the barely-there solidarity among the tracks isn't strong enough to make the album much better than average. It's not exceptional, but Rihanna has taken a bold step forward without completely falling flat, and she deserves much credit for that.