Now, however, she’s ready to open up, and her latest album, Rated R, released in November to impressive sales, proves that her silence wasn’t due to lack of insight or emotion. The record is a dissertation on her relationship with Brown and its bloody demise, and it has surprised reviewers who had written her off as a talented but manufactured pop sensation. “This was a different type of record for me,” she says in her steady island lilt, sitting in a backstage dressing room after taping a BET show. “It was really personal; it was from me in the most authentic way. It’s like a movie”—hence the title—“in that when I was making this album, every day I was in a different mood. Sometimes I was pissed off, sometimes I was miserable, and every song brings out a different story.” For the first time, she was intimately involved with the lyrics, writing many of them herself and spending time with her collaborators (who included Jeezy, Justin Timberlake and Ne-Yo) explaining her emotions and working on translating them. “It’s still hard to listen to certain songs,” she admits. “Certain ones I couldn’t even record—I’d keep pushing them back [on the schedule].” There was one track in particular she had a hard time facing. Called “The Last Song,” it has lyrics that read like the final goodbye to a great love. “When the label finally said we had 12 hours to turn in the album, I was like, Okay, I have to do it. I just drank some red wine, dimmed the lights, got in the booth and sang it.”
Rated R marks more than just Rihanna’s first real foray as a songwriter; it’s also a major shift stylistically from the lighthearted commercial pop of her past. “I wanted this album to have more bass, more bottom, grimier beats—to be less synth-y/pop-y/dance-y,” she says, wincing, as if to indicate that the hits that made her a star have started to grate on her. “My fans have until now been really young, like five years old to just before adulthood. But now older adults are into my music. Straight men too! Men couldn’t really bump my last album in the car. With this album they can play it and still feel tough.”
Taking control of her own sound was perhaps the next logical step for Rihanna after taking ownership of her look. Her first album, 2005’s Music of the Sun, was full of breezy beats sung by a soft beauty with flowing locks. By her third album, 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad, she’d shed that sweet image, claiming it was never really her but rather what the label wanted her to be. The romantic tresses were replaced by a sharp, jet-black, asymmetrical ’do, and she traded her beachy dresses for black leather. “My stylist Mariel Haenn and I always try to do something sexy but never too girly—we always try to put a little toughness in there,” she says. Today she is wearing harem-pant overalls, which she has paired with a black headpiece that can only be described as a hairnet, and which she somehow manages to make look cool. She explains that the line “I’m such a f---in’ lady” from Rated R’s single “Wait Your Turn” has become like a mantra for her, aesthetically and otherwise.