The cover of the new Rihanna album features a severe black-and-white head shot of the star. She has her hand clapped over her right eye; her left eye, surrounded by a raccoon ring of mascara, glares back at the viewer. The context here is no secret: It is impossible to look at those eyes without remembering the images of Rihanna’s bruised face in the aftermath of her beating in February by ex-boyfriend Chris Brown. Until recently, the singer has been quiet about the incident. Songs like “Russian Roulette” — a domestic-violence victim’s confession whipped into soaring melodrama — tell us why: She was busy saying her piece in the studio.
If by some accident of fate, or maybe record-company cynicism, the new Chris Brown album has arrived at the same moment as his ex’s. The resultstempt a reviewer to talk in terms of moral victories, but the real triumphhere is artistic. Chris Brown has made a bland, occasionally obnoxious, proforma R&B album. Rihanna has transformed her sound and made one of the best pop records of the year.
Brown mostly ignores the elephant in the room, churning out punchy dance-pop songs full of club-ready beats and Casanova gestures. He gloats about “the cars and the girls and the cribs.” He promises ecstasy (“Gonnamake you bloom like a flower,” he tells the girl in “Take My Time”). There are also lost-love ballads, delivered by Brown in his nasal wisp of a singing voice. But as unfair as it sounds, the Rihanna incident has made it impossible to hear him in the same way; the sweetness that animated songs like 2008’s “Forever” is now a hard sell.
With Rihanna, singing has never been in doubt. The question has always been personality: Is there a flesh-and-blood woman lurking beneath the big voice and model looks? On Rated R, she answers the question emphatically. There are a couple of engaging up tempo tunes. (The Star Gate-produced “Rude Boy”is smutty fun, with a Caribbean bounce.) But this is an album with a grim theme: love gone horribly wrong. “What you did to me was a crime,” Rihanna sings in the slow-boiling “Cold Case Love.” Elsewhere, she is bent on vengeance. “I lick the gun when I’m done,” she cries in “G4L,” “because I know that revenge is sweet.” The songs are etched in somber shades and minor chords, with Rihanna belting over synths and booming beats. The results are a musical match for the black-on-black CD cover — goth R&B.
No single song approaches the grandeur of Rihanna’s 2007 megahit,”Umbrella.” But even the most sprawling power ballads here have an intimatequality. In the plaintive “Stupid in Love,” Rihanna turns the blame inward.”My new nickname is ‘You Idiot’ . . . /That’s what my friends are calling mewhen they see me yelling into my phone.” Such introspection is evidently beyond Brown. On “Lucky Me,” he turns his troubles into an occasion for self-congratulation: “Even when my world’s falling down/I still wear a smile.” A simple sorry might have made a better song – or at least made Brown a better guy.