It took me an unconscionably long time to listen to Rihanna’s Rated R (and, given my slow pace of blogging of late, even longer to write about it); unconscionable because it’s such a great record, a development of some of the best features of Rihanna’s earlier records. Luckily, the forthcoming release of “Te Amo” gives me an excuse for finishing this half-written post.
It may have taken me so long to get round to this because, for reasons I no longer understand, I wasn’t that impressed with “Russian Roulette” when I first heard it. I think to get it I needed to hear it in the context of some of the other tracks on the album. It was coming across the marvelously bizarre video for “Hard” on MTV that got me to look again at the album. “Hard” encapsulates the theme that is explored throughout the album: objectification as self-preservation, feminine superficiality as a kind of cold armor with which to avoid the pain which comes from interiority. In about half of the tracks on the album, this nihilation of subjectivity (aided by Rihanna’s internalization of the affect of auto-tune) takes on an apocalyptic edge: in “Hard, ” this comes out most strikingly through the use of a sample from “Can You Feel It,” slicing off the rumbling bridge just before it resolves into the chorus (“Can You Feel It” of course has its own apocalyptic, or messianic, video).
This superficial swagger runs through many of the most enjoyable tracks on the album, the dubstep-meets-Stargate of “Wait Your Turn” (I’m not sure that this isn’t just an artifact of MP3 encoding, but there’s something reedy and overdriven about the synths in this track that give the impression of a song so powerful as to strain against its technological limits) and “G4L,” and also in “Rude Boy” another track which benefits from being heard in the context of the album. Heard as a single, the track is quite light-hearted, a dancehall-inflected come-on; it’s only close proximity to “Russian Roulette” that emphasizes the icicle-like ringing coldness of the synths.
You can see my heart beating
You can see it through my chest
“Russian Roulette” itself marks the other side of the album, the ballads that function as an internal critique of this tactic. The mistake lies in thinking that emotions exist internally, which would allow the assumption of superficiality to partition pain away from the self. What this misses is that the surface is precisely where emotions are, because, far from being part of our unique internal being, emotions are constituted by and constitute what we show of ourselves to others (to paraphrase Putnam, feelings aren’t in the heart). We see this to heartbreaking effect in “Te Amo.” The track is haunted by the ghost of “La Isla Bonita,” a tragic holiday romance in which the fantasy of a carefree sexuality comes up against what is evidently, for Rihanna at least, an absolute limit, gender. The Spanish here doesn’t signify the exotic so much as it signifies incommunicability (“won’t somebody tell me what she said”), the limits to commonality and connection and the inescapability of the pain that lies there.