Rated R isn't just dark, but unrelentingly dark. The one-time Little Miss Sunshine works with various producers here, including Stargate, will.i.am and UK drum 'n' base duo Chase & Status, but the tone remains menacing and macabre throughout. If a track like 'Pon De Replay' had inexplicably been slipped onto this disc, it would stick out like a working girl at a W.I. meeting among all the brooding beats, fuggy guitars and sinister synths. However, this isn't to say that Rated R lacks sonic variety. It gets pretty dubsteppy on 'Wait Your Turn', heads for the dancehall on 'Rude Boy', and even throws in some flamenco guitar during 'Te Amo'. Nor, as the likes of 'Hard', 'Fire Bomb' and 'Wait Your Turn' prove, is there a lack of pop hooks.
However, if one word describes how Rated R sounds, quite another encapsulates what it's about. Rihanna is all posture and swagger here, alternately presenting herself as "the hottest bitch in heels", a "gangster for life" and a gun-toting, grenade-pitching soldier. On 'Hard' she offers this as a terse CV summary: "Brilliant, resilient, fanmail from 27 million." At times, she sings in a surprisingly harsh Caribbean accent that she's never used on record before - "brave", for example, becomes "breer-eerve" - and she takes songwriting credits on nine of these 13 tracks, an increase of nine from her last album. That word? Control.
Of course, commentators who know Rihanna from TMZ as much as from MTV will attribute all this to The Chris Brown Incident. They'd have a point, especially since Rated R isn't afraid to allude to the attack. The Justin Timberlake-penned 'Cold Case Love' features the couplet "Prints, pictures and white outlines / Are all that's left at the scene of a cold case love", while 'Fire Bomb' finds Rihanna singing about smashing through the windscreen, an undeniably shocking image from a woman whose then boyfriend reportedly gave her a black eye by bashing her face against a car window. Less explicit, though equally gossip rag-friendly, are lyrics elsewhere on the album about never playing the victim, not being stupid in love and seeing your life flashing before your eyes.
But, to whatever extent it was inspired by becoming a very public victim of domestic violence, Rated R should primarily be perceived as Rihanna's most significant career progression yet. If 'Pon De Replay' and 'SOS' showed she could sell a pop single, and 2007's Good Girl Gone Bad proved she could carry an entire album, this is the record – startling in vision, startlingly good in execution – that elevates her from popstar to pop artist. Rihanna, in case you were wondering, is still only 21 years old.