Rihanna is one of our most malleable pop stars. In the last five years she has grown from sunkissed Bajan sweetie to heaving disco queen to, most crucially, bright-eyed and hopeful balladeer.
But she’s never been tough. Rated R, Rihanna’s first album since her brutal confrontation with ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, wants to recast her as a searing woman scorned. It doesn’t quite take.
The 21-year-old singer has the sort of even-keeled, toneless voice that’s rarely expressive enough to convey fury, and the songs here betray her natural affinity for the shimmering. On the otherwise steely “Hard,” she laughably blurts, “Where them bloggas at?” melting any chance at toughness. On “Rockstar 101” with Slash, she works terribly hard to roar about her rocker bona fides. “Got my middle finger up, I don’t give a fuck,” she mewls so preciously you’d think it was her first time swearing.
Rated R succeeds when Rihanna works to her strengths: mid-tempo, middle American ballads. Working with glittering electro-pop production from Will.i.am, she turns “Photograph” into a tender, tense tale of broken love. On the gorgeous, Justin Timberlake-penned “Cold Case Love,” she seems to discover the flip side of “Umbrella.” Love sucks, it’s true. And for a short moment, Rihanna is tough. She just isn’t insisting upon it.