Rihanna’s first three albums evolved a simple, set formula; just have her sing—as well as she can—expertly crafted songs about partying and being in love. But then in February 2009, right before the two were set to perform at the Grammy Awards, Rihanna’s boyfriend Chris Brown assaulted her. Brown was charged with assault and making criminal threats the next month as Rihanna made her way into the studio to record her fourth album, which saw the singer suddenly shoved into a dark headspace.
She had no choice but to address the situation, which suddenly challenged Rihanna, unaccustomed to making music with a goal beyond packing dance floors and climbing the charts. The resulting album, Rated R, sold less than its predecessors and reviews were mixed. Spin pointed out the singer “has the sort of even-keeled, toneless voice that’s rarely expressive enough to convey fury” and the Washington Post asked, “Is she grappling with demons? Or projecting the image of a singer grappling with demons?”
But listening to the album a couple years removed from its celebrity news context, it reads as a sincere effort to let listeners into Rihanna’s real life, at least more than she had before. The music presents a dark air from the get-go as Rihanna addresses the elephant in the room straight-off, singing, “I’m such a fucking lady, you don’t have to be so afraid” on “Wait Your Turn.” And she sounds convincingly “Hard” with Young Jeezy.
If Rated R was Rihanna insincerely milking her circumstances at the time, at least she seems to have fun getting a little more thuggish than she’d otherwise have been allowed. When she finally drops the melodrama on “Rude Boy,” she scores a breezy, fun hit that could have easily been slotted on any of her previous albums.
What Rated R did, ultimately, was allow Rihanna to filter some darkness into her music, with thrilling results. Her next album, Loud, featured her singing about murder on “Man Down,” while last year’s "Talk That Talk" saw her repeating “We found love in a hopeless place” and riding that somewhat depressing declaration to another hit single.