These are tricky days for hip-hop queen Rihanna. At the same time she's working the talk-show circus, poignantly revealing the human complexities of domestic abuse, she's pushing a sexed-out album that often plays like a delicious, albeit shocking, revenge fantasy. She calls it Rated R, presumably because NC-17 just didn't have that same snap. Do as she says, boys and girls, not as she sings.
“For those among you who are easily frightened, we suggest you turn away now . . ." That's how Ri-Ri kicks off her incendiary fourth album, which hits store shelves Nov. 23. At least the 21-year-old Barbadian bombshell is being honest. Kids are normally her target audience, but parents would double-take at the content. ("I lick the gun when I'm done"? Yikes. We're not under her chummy Umbrella anymore, that's for sure.) Rated R isn't for sensitive older fans, either, all those people impressed by the woman who chatted with Diane Sawyer about being assaulted by ex-boyfriend Chris Brown.
That said, this is Rihanna's first real album, and her best at that. The artist writes five of the 13 tracks, but she's emotionally invested in all of them, as she alternates between the relationship in question and the furious fallout. With her island lilt and sing-speak rhyming style, Rihanna often addresses her fears not with understanding but a full-frontal assault of aggression, gunshots and booty calls.
If you're hoping for ruminations on the Feb. 8 incident involving Brown, there are a few. The six-minute ballad Cold Case Love, written and produced by Justin Timberlake, looms like big-ticket gossip fodder at album's end. She sings: "What you did to me was a crime / Cold case love / And I let you reach me one more time / But that's enough." The piano-pensive Stupid in Love warns of letting the good memories dilute the bad ones. These gentler songs are captivating, primarily because what precedes is an often profane, hard-core slap of take-that. That "explicit" sticker on the cover is there for a reason.
Most of the songs are dark, moody, littered with f-bombs and nookie talk. Russian Roulette, penned by Ne-Yo, is one of the more disturbing pop singles to come along. Hard, featuring a rap by Jeezy, is awash in awesome swagger. G4L and Rockstar 101, the latter juiced by the slithery guitar licks of Slash, are throwdown songs establishing supremacy — and evidence of her ties to boastful mentor Jay-Z. "I got my middle finger up / I don't really give a (bleep)," she sneers.
The production list is a who's who of hitmakers (the-Dream, Stargate, Will.i.am) who sound inspired in helping Rihanna make her statement about female empowerment. There's a chance that the singer's best album might be her worst-selling. Are people ready to accept her as a full-fledged artist rather than a nubile hitmaker? Maybe, maybe not. But something tells me Rihanna doesn't care. She said what she wanted to about her past and her future. And I bet that feels pretty (bleepin') good.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.