Rated R begins with "Mad House," an intro track featuring a man who sounds like Vincent Price. He cautions easily frightened listeners that they'd be wise to turn away, and he welcomes those who think they can take it, whatever it is. The stage is expertly set for the massive, statement-making kind of pop experience we want this record to be, and though, depending on what happens next, it may eventually inspire uncontrollable eye-rolling, it certainly feels good at the outset.
This is supposed to be Rihanna's album-length response to Chris Brown beating the shit out of her on their way to the Grammy Awards earlier this year. And as crass as it sounds, it's hard to imagine another female pop-star more equipped to handle such a task. Madonna could have done it, of course, and I'd be curious to see what Christina would have done with it. Britney has never given any indication that she has the emotional maturity to formulate a response other than "ouch," and Whitney would have unleashed a barrage of boring ballads like nothing we've ever heard. Rihanna's image, though--tough as nails, physically intimidating in her own right--along with the fact that she's always seemed like a reasonably smart woman, has this whole situation brimming with possibility. For female empowerment, for valuable teaching moments, and for most of all for really fucking bad-ass pop songs.
In what is probably one of the best and most surprising decisions made this year--surprising in that subtlety is generally not a quality we look for in our pop stars--Rihanna keeps her response vague. Instead of a direct, "Here's how I feel about what you did to me" kind of thing, she communicates by not really communicating at all, by essentially resorting to hip-hop style boasting. In "Hard," she tells us she's at the top of her game, on a pedestal, and that she needs it all: "the money, the cars, the clothes." And in "Rockstar 101," she talks about being in a club: "Rocking these diamonds, I'm rocking this chain. Make sure you get a picture, I'm rocking my fame." They're throwaway lines at best, but they appear alongside two of Rated R's best moments. At the beginning of "Hard," she sets the record straight: "They can say whatever, I'ma do whatever. No pain is forever. Yup, you know this." And again in "Rockstar": "Six inch walker, Big shit-talker. I never play the victim, I'd rather be a stalker."
So before too long, you know that the gist of Rihanna's response is, "What? Pfff, I moved on from that a long time ago, and I'm just back to being awesome now." It might not be the healthiest way of dealing with things, and it might not be the most honest, but it's wickedly effective--you can't help but smile at the thought of someone being so strong, even if you know it's probably bullshit. And, you know, smiling leads to dancing and singing and buying records.
There are parts of the record that are less straightforward and, I imagine, harder for some people to come to grips with. Over and over again, Rihanna seems to posit not only that this could have happened to anyone, but that the very act of loving someone, and of being loved, is inherently violent, and that even if you're not being physically assaulted, you're being torn apart in ways you didn't even think were possible--assuming you're doing it right. On the album's first single, the sneakily affecting "Russian Roulette," she sings, "You can see my heart beating, Oh you can see it through my chest," about how vulnerable, how naked you are when you've given yourself over to another person. She continues, "I'm terrified but I'm not leaving, Know that I must pass this test." This is the album's and dark secret: that there's honor in fighting through things, regardless of the consequences.
But more than anything, Rated R is an absolute mother-fucker of a pop record, with no less than eight songs that could be number one with a bullet. Styles run the gamut from guitar-heavy rock to electronic dance-hall, with a few disposable R&B ballads thrown in along the way, none of which contradict Rihanna's constant assertions that she's at the top of her game, or any game, really. Go back and listen to that intro one more time: it makes good on its promise.