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Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: Rihanna's Rated R

Her new album is as angry and profoundly uncomfortable as you might have suspected

Let's go ahead and skip to the song wherein Rihanna imagines herself as a suicide bomber. "Fire Bomb," it's called. Surly power chords. Syrupy keyboards. Slow-burn anthemic grandeur. A triumphant sense of righteous fury. Very Pat Benatar. Love is a battlefield. Or, in this case, a tomb.

She starts off with a little car trouble: "Gunfire left a hole in the tank, losing gasoline/Fire is on my trail and he's after me/Hope it don't get here before I get where I'm going." As to where she's going, "Can't wait to see your face/When your front windows break/And I come crashing through." The chorus hits, the grandeur heightens: "The lovers need to clear the road/'Cause this thing is ready to blow," "road" and "blow" both lovingly rendered as ecstatic six-syllable moans. The kicker: "I just wanna set you on fire so I won't have to burn alone/Then you'll know where I'm coming from."

Everyone knows where Rihanna is coming from on Rated R, and yet she burns alone, a publicly wounded robo-r&b ice princess vacillating between extraordinarily discomforting vulnerability and hilariously operatic boasting. She swears a lot, is what I mean. "Got my middle finger up/I don't really give a fuck," goes the thesis of "Rockstar 101" (co-starring Slash!), about which the less said the better; "I'm such a fuckin' lady," she crows on "Wait Your Turn," her thick, insouciant Barbadan accent periodically unleashed, incessantly chanting, "The wait is ova/The wait is ova" at the disconcertingly joyless onset of an album hurriedly announced last month from an artist no one would have blamed for laying low for awhile.

Get It Ova With, I guess: Her first record since then-boyfriend and noted asshat Chris Brown assaulted her in February was doomed to be combed for subliminal references to that horrible situation; everyone hoped she'd just haul off and name it Fuck You or something. She did not. Would you settle for a frigid, seething firebomb called "G4L," as in Gangsta 4 Life? "Six-inch walker/Big shit-talker/I never play the victim/I'd rather be a stalker," she sneers, clearing that up. Opening line: "I lick the gun when I'm done/'Cause I know that revenge is sweet." Rated R's low points are pretty bad. But its high points, thrilling as they are, might make you feel even worse.

Actually, "Rockstar 101" (co-starring Slash!) aside, the only real clunker here is "Stupid in Love," our big weepy power ballad, the maudlin piano riff way overdoing it as Rihanna sets up a cheating-boyfriend conceit (moaning, "Let me tell you somethin'/Never/Have I ever/Been a size 10 in my whole life," which is a great first line, actually) and then hacks at it with defiantly rudimentary protests like, "This is stupid/I'm not stupid/Don't talk to me/Like I'm stupid" (that's the chorus) and "Try to make this work/But you act like a jerk" (that starts the bridge, which also notes that "the dunce cap is off"). The I-love-you-but-you're-no-good-for-me theme certainly resonates, to say the least, but nothing she says (or could have said) here has the brutal, heartstopping simplicity of the tearful seven-word creed she offered Diane Sawyer: "Don't react off of love. Eff love."

So maybe Rated R is better off the loopier it gets, and for that we have "Hard," another hostile boaster ("While you're gettin' your cry on/I'm gettin' my fly on") with a goofy Young Jeezy cameo (he rechristens himself "Louis Mane") and a general air of tremendously appealing, unapologetically steamrolling self-aggrandizement. It's a lot of fun. But pure fun is rare here, and pure unease far more plentiful, nowhere more so than on "Russian Roulette," a spare, suspenseful, violent torch song (the title is extremely literal) that makes for profoundly (and intentionally) unpleasant listening. "It's too late to think of the value of my life," Rihanna howls climactically. It ends with a single gunshot. Brrrrrr.

You are way, way better off not projecting any kind of emotional subtext onto this record. Enjoy "Te Amo" as a simple, standard-issue, rebuffing-a-heartfelt-lesbian-advance electro-Latin number (!?!), and luxuriate in the hushed, chilling, gorgeous murmurs of "Cold Case Love," featuring the co-writing talents of Justin Timberlake (evidently he's not a CSI fan) and eventually marred by a corny "In the Air Tonight"–style drum break and some overzealous guitar shredding, which totally breaks the mood but is pretty funny nonetheless.

But subtext is ever-looming—to get to those tunes, you have to get past "Photographs," a penitent post-breakup lament, most definitely reacting off of love, that you could easily dismiss as unrepentant corn—"Here's my heart/My heart/My heart," she coos, and then, boom, cue the horrible will.i.am verse—if it weren't so goddamn affecting. It's Rihanna's best straight-up vocal performance yet: She sounds so sweet, so delicate, and so devastated, and she utterly sells that hoariest of sad-song clichés: "All I got are these photographs." She's burning up, and suddenly you are, too. Problem is, the specific photo you're thinking of first surfaced on TMZ.com.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

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