In 2009, Rihanna was an artist at a crossroads, both personally and professionally. She had already far outdone expectations after her 2005 debut single, “Pon de Replay,” which had one-hit-wonder written all over it. Instead, she scored a string of other smashes, including “SOS,” “Umbrella,” “Take a Bow” and “Disturbia” — all of which topped the Billboard Hot 100. Still, Rihanna had yet to make the kind of artistic statement that made you think there was a whole lot more behind that glossy Cover Girl veneer.
That all changed with Rated R, which was released 10 years ago. Rihanna’s fourth album arrived just nine months after she was assaulted by then-boyfriend Chris Brown the night before the two stars were scheduled to appear at the Grammys. With photos of Rihanna’s battered face shown all around the world, she had become the poster girl for abused women. But instead of hiding away from the drama, Rihanna poured it into her art on Rated R.
Deeper and darker, harder and heavier than anything you would have expected from RiRi before the Brown attack, Rihanna’s gritty fourth album was a coming-of-age manifesto for the then 21-year-old singer. No more kid stuff — Rated R displayed a new maturity for an artist whose innocence was seemingly lost. In many ways, the album was Rihanna’s Control — her declaration of independence from Brown and her taking charge of a narrative that had turned her into a victim. Rocking a new attitude, swag and edginess, this was Good Girl Gone Badass.
That could be heard right away on the horrorcore-ish opener “Mad House,” which welcomes you into the madness that her life had become. Even in just a minute and a half, it’s clear that it’s about to get real. Then on the pimp-strolling “Wait Your Turn,” Rihanna doesn’t waste any time dropping a not-so-veiled reference to her domestic-violence incident. “I pitch with a grenade/Swing away if you’re feeling brave,” she sings, clearly itching to swing back.
But it’s on “Hard” — the third track and second single — that the new Rihanna truly emerges, stronger and tougher, the “hottest bitch in heels” (which she just might step on your throat with). “No fear/And while you’re gettin’ your cry on/I’m gettin’ my fly on,” she boasts over the menacing G-funk groove. She hardly needs Jeezy to take this banger to the streets. It’s here that you can see the boss that Rihanna was destined to become.
She keeps up the gangsta moves on tracks like “G4L,” which stands for “gangsta for life,” and “Rockstar 101,” which cranks up the guitars and the hip-hop braggadocio. The latter makes Rihanna’s rock flirtation on Good Girl Gone Bad’s “Shut Up and Drive” seem like pure bubblegum. After having zero writing credits on 2007’s hit-laden Good Girl, Rihanna had a hand in penning nine of 13 tracks on Rated R. And tunes like “Fire Bomb,” about a combustible relationship that is “ready to blow,” are no doubt fueled by her personal experiences.
Even songs that Rihanna didn’t write at all feel like they came straight from her life. The piano ballad “Stupid in Love,” written and produced by Ne-Yo and Stargate, is all bruised emotion seemingly aimed at Brown. Elsewhere, “Russian Roulette,” another Ne-Yo collaboration, and the Justin Timberlake cowrite “Cold Case Love” explore the dark, dangerous places that the heart can take you.
Oddly enough, “Rude Boy” — the biggest single from Rated R — is an outlier here. It’s a bumping dancehall jam on which Rihanna admits her thing for bad boys, asking “Can you get it up?” and “Is you big enough?” It feels as if the song was added to increase the commercial appeal of the album, and it did just that, hitting No. 1 on the Hot 100. But more than delivering another chart-topping single, Rated R showed that Rihanna was a serious artist in it for the long haul.