There’s no pussyfooting around the subject of Rihanna’s fourth album. Rated R is about the pain of love—specifically and deliberately that of her breakup with Chris Brown after he brutally assaulted her on the night of the Grammy Awards this past February. The lyrics of Rated R are like excerpts from a therapy session: “Trying to make this work / But you act like a jerk,” she sings on “Stupid In Love.” “You repeatedly try to tell me lies / And I don’t know why… Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid.” On “Fire Bomb,” she snaps, “I didn’t do it / You lit the match for me.” Titles like “Cold Case Love” and “Russian Roulette,” the latter climaxing with tinny gunshots, extend the public drama with harrowing scenarios and tremulous vocals.
But like lots of works that are self-consciously intense, Rated R is also turgid: Much of its music is a dull wash, difficult to differentiate even across several plays, and not especially compelling outside of the real-life drama the singer examines and exploits. The exceptions are songs that have nothing to do with the Brown affair: “Hard” is a playful boast about fame (“Brilliant, Brazilian / Fan mail from 27 million”), while “Rude Boy” icily challenges the title prospect, “Is you big enough?” It points to the fact that, for all the respect Rihanna earns for being so straightforward about her life, she’s a better entertainer than confessor.