Rihanna, Rated R (Def Jam)
Rated R is Rihanna's bid for aesthetic sweep—and, yeah, she really shouldn't have. The album, ostentatiously inspired by the singer's messy real-life relationship with Chris Brown, is supposed to be dark and angry—and the way you can tell it's dark and angry is that it's devoid of hooks. The first single, "Russian Roulette," is an interminable, maudlin slog. As is "Cold Case Love." As is "The Last Song." "Rockstar 101" is better, with a growling groove and some guitar from Slash, though Rihanna, like Britney before her, gets by more because we know what she looks like than because she can actually pull off the sexy-tough attitude with any conviction. There's some of that on the single-entendre "Rude Boy" as well, though Rihanna does seem more comfortable cooing her come-ons in a more typically R&B setting.
The best song on here, though, is one that ignores the whole rebellious and dangerous trope altogether. "Te Amo" rolls in lazily, like an outtake from Rihanna's sunlit first couple of albums. There's a calypso bounce as the singer leans back into her island accent—and then, unexpectedly, the lyrics are addressed not to a man, but to another woman, who "takes the lead," pulling Rihanna across the dancefloor. The singer's response is both understated and, literally, questioning: "I understand that we all need love and I'm not afraid to feel the love, but I don't feel that way.../'Te amo,' would somebody tell me what she said?" It's a minor miracle: a song explicitly about lesbianism that doesn't go for either laughs or titillation, but instead makes of it light, conflicted, tuneful longing—perfect pop.