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CD review

The sound and fury of Rihanna

Singer vents rage on ‘Rated R’

Rihanna Rihanna doesn't dodge her troubling incident with ex-boyfriend Chris Brown on her dark new release. (Carlo Allegri)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / November 20, 2009

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“Rated R’’ is not just an album title - it’s a warning. On her fourth release, out today, pop star Rihanna unleashes a storm, and an umbrella is not going to cut it.

There are instances of strong language and depictions of adult situations and violence. And what that “R’’ stands for mutates repeatedly over the course of the album’s 13 dark, tempestuous, and ultimately uneven, tracks. Rage, regret, revenge, resignation, and resilience - the 21-year-old singer displays them all and more in her first release since 2007’s multiplatinum “Good Girl Gone Bad’’ and, more pointedly, her violent altercation with then-boyfriend Chris Brown in February.

That very public incident makes it harder than usual to separate the universal themes of “Rated R’’ from the events in the music maker’s life, and Rihanna doesn’t attempt to - nor does she need to - disguise or skirt the connection. The last album may have had the naughty title, but it is this one that feels like it addresses a loss of innocence.

If seeking sanctuary was the stated reason for heading into the studio, comfort was not on the musical docket. What was, understandably, was anger.

With the help of the usual phalanx of A-list co-writers and producers, Rihanna channels a frenetic energy into the tunes. Most retain the core of the evolving hip-hop dance pop of her earlier albums but also step toward a more jagged edge by piling on the squalling electric guitars and unsparing images. At the album’s most interesting she finds her fury in power chords and emotion-choked questioning. Although she also takes less convincing stabs at hitting up the club as usual, you will find no “Pon de Replay’’ replay here.

If songs like “Hard,’’ “Stupid in Love,’’ “Russian Roulette,’’ “Photographs,’’ and “Cold Case Love’’ don’t refer to the incident directly, the recurring themes of attack, betrayal, survival, and inconsolability certainly resonate.

Some are chilling, like the Ne-Yo co-penned “Stupid in Love.’’ A circular piano riff echoes the singer’s confusion as she sings, “Don’t understand it, blood on your hands, and still you insist on repeatedly trying to tell me lies.’’ A female backing chorus offers a kind of support and relief.

But what works as therapeutic psychodrama for the singer doesn’t always work quite as well as pop music, which, from the shiny surfaces, it’s clear everyone here is still striving for. (Self-expression is great, but there’s money to be made, after all.)

In addition to emotional sincerity some basics are necessary, and several songs fall short in that arena, with weak melodies and a failure to fully connect the dots between the squealing guitars and the percolating urban beats. The moody but far too deliberate “Russian Roulette,’’ also co-written by Ne-Yo, has a grab bag of evocative images but never quite jells. The ’80s metal throwback “Fire Bomb’’ is curiously devoid of emotion given the serrated riffs. And the will.i.am-produced “Photographs’’ is a mess. The Black Eyed Pea inserts his creepy electro boom-bap rap into what starts as a light, almost Caribbean-scented lament featuring Rihanna singing in a higher, more vulnerable register. It’s the musical equivalent of an uncle trying to talk “Twilight’’ with his niece’s friends.

Justin Timberlake is one of the most successful collaborators in terms of combining Rihanna’s need to vent with strong songcraft on “Cold Case Love.’’ He slowly builds a wall of sound, from simple voice and quavering organ to full-on strings-beatbox-kitchen-sink melodrama, that perfectly frames the escalating sorrow and slightly overcooked crime scene metaphors.

The record’s only outright disappointment is “G4L,’’ in which Rihanna takes a bizarre detour into thug territory, trying and failing to channel her inner DMX as she boasts about waving guns in the air. While the song radiates an interesting, and logical, sense of the singer wanting to belong to a larger protective gang, the profane gangsta proclamations ring false.

“Rated R’’ is an interesting snapshot of several current events, including Rihanna’s evolution as a performer and the confluence of tabloid culture and pop art. But the true measure of music released amid a cloud of controversy is how well it stands on its own once the skies clear. For now “Rated R’’ is rated a B-minus.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

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