Look, it’s not as if there were a song where she says, “Chris Brown, you chicken-shit motherfucker, your ass is gonna pay.” But you don’t have to listen to Rated R with a decoder ring to hear the after-effects of Brown’s heinous assault on Rihanna during a Grammy-night altercation earlier this year. “What you did to me was a crime,” sings the 21-year-old Barbados native in “Cold Case Love,” a gorgeously spacy future-soul ballad co-written by Justin Timberlake. In “G4L,” over a minor-key, goth-punk synth lick, she seethes, “I lick the gun when I’m done, ’cause I know that revenge is sweet.” Throughout this emotional maelstrom of an R&B album, Rihanna keeps finding gripping new ways to transform regret into a kind of threat.
No one who’s taken her seriously since she emerged in 2005 with the appealingly unserious “Pon de Replay” should be surprised by her turn toward stark industrial textures. From the beginning, she’s proved herself wary of defining her style too narrowly.
What does surprise about Rated R is the degree to which she takes the dark, often jagged arrangements (by Ne-Yo, Stargate, and The-Dream & Tricky Stewart, among others) as a license to sully the good-girl image she only played at sullying on 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad. “Got my middle finger up, I don’t really give a fuck,” she sings in “Rockstar 101,” a grinding, grunge-crunk collaboration with Slash. After the year she’s had, why should she?