ALBUM REVIEW: Rihanna Is “Rated R,” And As Fierce As Ever

November 23, 2009 § 1 Comment

One of the things I love about Rihanna is how she’s transformed from the relatively anonymous bubble gum “S.O.S.” singer to a “goth rock chic” style icon/mega-pop star. It’s almost like she got tired of being compared to Beyoncé, and hired the best PR and marketing people to reinvent her image. At first, I completely avoided Rihanna because she was too popular. But then I saw her perform “Disturbia” on some awards show, dressed in a couture cloud of total darkness, and I was completely stunned. Wow, I thought, Rihanna is the complete package of style icon and pop-star.

It’s difficult for me to talk about Rihanna’s fabulous latest album, “Rated R,” without emphasizing her high-fashion style. First of all, the album cover is very high-fashion. When I first saw it on a poster, it piqued my interest immediately.

Our favorite pop star has turned to some of the most interesting avant-garde designers working in fashion – Alexander McQueen, Gareth Pugh, Rick Owens, and Alexander Wang to name a few – to craft the goth chic image that she’s got going on. What’s happening in prepackaged, readymade pop culture that a pop star can rely so heavily on avant-garde fashion to create her image? Are we over “good girls” in pop music?

Well, the first thing is that avant garde style virtually guarantees that you’ll be photographed. People are going to talk about your liquid leggings, your 10 inch high alien heels, the teacup on your head. So in wearing avant garde designs, you basically guarantee that your name and image circulate. And isn’t that the point of being a pop star? Other style icons like Dita Von Tesse, Daphne Guinness and Lady GaGa do this with stunning virtuosity.

The desire to have your image to circulate is something I’m very interested in. What does it mean to want to be an image? In a great book about celebrities by Chris Rojek, we learn that what distinguishes a celebrity from a person of reknown is that a celebrity is ubiquitous. With the help of media, celebrities try to stage a distance between their public life and her or his private life.

But with Rihanna as a style icon, what we get is a never ending “acting out” of “Rihanna.” Have you ever seen a bad photo of her, a photo where Ms. Fierce was not being “Rihanna”? When she links herself to avant garde fashion – and the more bizarre the better! – Rihanna gets dressed to be photographed. Really smart people like Henry Sayre, Susan Sontag and Craig Owens have all talked about the staged quality of photographs. Susan Sontag tells us that “To live is to pose; but to live is also to be photographed.” Craig Owens insists that to pose is to “already exist as a picture.” What I’ll add is that to be a style icon is to always be editorial, to exist as if on a photo shoot; forever anticipating the next image.

With her newest album, “Rated R,” Rihanna puts style and edge on full-blast. What’s so great about RiRi is that she’s R&B but she’s also rock. She pushes the boundaries of what R&B can be. Case in point: on  “Rockstar 101,” RiRi sings “I’m rocking these diamonds/ I’m rocking this chain/ Make sure you get a picture/ I’m rocking my fame” and then later tells us that “The only thing I’m missing is a black guitar.”

How hot is that! “The only thing I’m missing is a black guitar.” I love how the song is really an edgy rock jam that’s completely rooted in R&B.

Overall, “Rated R” is genius. We can look forward to many top ten singles from this album, and probably several album re-releases, too. It’s not nearly as dancey as the stuff she’s really known for, but that doesn’t mean it’s less interesting.

“Wait Your Turn” is a fun mid-tempo jam with long syllables that emphasize RiRi’s Caribbean accent. I can’t stop listening to this one. At. All.  And if you ever wanted to know how RiRi feels about the Chris Brown Fiasco, click on “Stupid In Love,” an extremely powerful slow song totally meant as an slap in the face to Chris. “Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid/I still love you but I just can’t do this/I may be dumb but I’m not stupid.” On “G4L”  Rihanna says “I lick the gun when I’m done cause you know that revenge is sweet.”

Woorrrk, RiRi! Success is the best revenge!

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