For all the talk of an edgier, angrier and more mature new Rihanna, it's hard to buy the re-emergent dance-pop singer as a towering pillar of feminine strength akin to Patti Smith, Courtney Love, Queen Latifah or Mary J. Blige.
It will take more than a few fiery television interviews and a dark and futuristic new look that's equal parts Daryl Hannah in "Blade Runner" and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes in TLC to really sell that.
Nevertheless, "Rated R," the new album recorded in the wake of Rihanna's altercation with former boyfriend Chris Brown arriving in stores Monday, is by far the best, most layered and most heartfelt effort of the 21-year-old artist's career, even if her new woman-in-charge persona is in part just another marketing pose.
Ever since Robyn Rihanna Fenty was discovered in her native Barbados by Evan Rogers, a veteran producer of 'N Sync, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson and Kelly Clarkson, the one-time beauty queen has followed the path of many other prefab pop princesses in the new millennium, cheerfully turning her scantily clad self over to the manipulations of the star-making machine.
Her first two albums, "Music of the Sun" (2005) and "A Girl Like Me" (2006), were easily dismissible dance-pop trifles with a hint of Caribbean spicing. Riri, as she's known to fans, began to show more range with the phenomenally successful "Good Girl Gone Bad" in 2007. But as that title and the enjoyable but ultimately insubstantial singles "Umbrella" and "Disturbia" indicated, she still seemed to be just another pretty puppet dancing on the strings of her (male) producers, managers and handlers.
Then came the altercation with Brown that derailed her scheduled performance during the Grammy Awards last February. Though the details were sketchy at first--and Rihanna, like many victims of abuse, initially seemed to absolve her assailant--Brown eventually pleaded guilty to felony assault, and Rihanna bid him good riddance.
There can be no debate: Penitent or not, Brown has proven to be a world-class creep and a brutal thug. He began serving a sentence of five years' probation, six months of community labor and a year of domestic violence counseling last August. And Rihanna started making her fourth studio album with a superstar team of producers and songwriters including Stargate, the Dream, Ne-Yo, will.i.am and Justin Timberlake.
"I was involved in a lot of the writing," Rihanna told Glamour magazine. "I put everything I've wanted to say for the past eight months into my music. The songs are really personal. It's rock 'n' roll, but it's really hip-hop: If Lil Wayne and Kings of Leon like my album, then I'll feel good... It's super-fearless."
Though there's nothing inherently rock 'n' roll or "super-fearless" about lacing slick, synthesized dance-pop grooves with a little electric guitar, some of it courtesy of Slash, a quarter of a century after "Thriller," there is a more insistent punch and electrifying energy in the 13 grooves on "Rated R," which also lives up to its title and emphasizes its maturity with a lot more profanity than we've heard from Riri in the past. (This is her first disc with a Parental Advisory warning label.)
The album moves through the same sort of emotional journey that one imagines the singer undergoing in the last year. After an opening old-school horror-movie homage called "Mad House"--more shades of "Thriller"--we find Rihanna boasting about being part of an unbeatable team ("Together we gonna be taking over") and sitting on top of the pop charts and the world in general ("Brilliant, resilient/Fan mail from 27 million") in "Wait Your Turn" and "Hard."
Then things get darker--and more interesting. Set against a spare, piano-driven melody, "Stupid in Love" is as honest an examination of how a smart woman can fall into a destructive relationship as pop has ever given us. The singer continues to probe this theme with the more upbeat and obviously metaphorical "Russian Roulette" before finally standing up for herself in "Rockstar 101." (And isn't it great that, even in these commercially co-opted times, some people still equate "rock" with "rebellion"?)
"I've never played a victim/I'd rather be a stalker," Rihanna sings. That's hardly a profound or particularly feminist lyric, but its strength comes from the way she spits out the words. In both the quieter, more introspective songs and the angrier dancehall-flavored club-stompers, her limited vocal range has never sounded more convincing or deserving of the pop spotlight.
As with the first third of the disc, the last portion isn't quite as gripping as the middle section. The album ends with a bit more sunshine, culminating with the lushly arranged, Timberlake-penned "Cold Case Love" and the aptly named sing-along coda, "The Last Song."
Is any of this the 2009 equivalent of Aretha Franklin belting out, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Find out what it means to me"? Heck no. But "Rated R" is a much better effort than many might have expected from Rihanna, and one that makes this listener eager to hear how much more she may grow in the years to come.