Revisiting ‘Rated R’ and Rihanna’s narrative of a Black woman’s experience with trauma
Rated R says, “I need some time to think. No, I am not okay, but I’m processing.”
by Ayika Tshimanga
Before Robyn Rihanna Fenty released her commercially successful project that is popularly regarded as her best work to date, ANTI (2016), she produced an underrated gem that would lay the groundwork for ANTI to exist, Rated R.
At the time of Rated R’s release, Rihanna was widely regarded–and arguably may still be thought of–as a singles artist. Both critics and casual listeners have long discredited her artistry for a myriad of reasons.
Ironically, it’s her preeminent musical ear that gets her the most flack and reputation of being a singles artist. At just 19, Rihanna churned out Good Girl Gone Bad, a commercially successful album, full of megahits–the most notable of those being “Umbrella.” The album introduced Rihanna to the mainstream and solidified her as a top contender in popular music.
The album’s success may have also been what boxed her into the “fluff” music category, making it hard, if not impossible for audiences to take her artistry as seriously as that of her peers. The two years of the Good Girl Gone Bad era (2007-2008) also cemented her place as a fashion influencer which added to the Rihanna package, but may have also taken attention away from viewing her as a serious artist rather than an ‘It’ girl. Rihanna was the hitmaker and fashion girl, but unfortunately was not much else for most listeners and viewers.
During her climb to success, Rihanna was noticeably dating rising R&B/Pop artist Chris Brown. The two played coy about their relationship in the public eye but were routinely pictured together in intimate settings. It was picture perfect: two young and budding artists who just so happened to be in love.
For marketers, the pairing was a match made in heaven that was beneficial to both of their brands. While some artists and their A&R are known to manufacture relationships for press, Chris and Rihanna had the coveted picturesque, yet genuine relationship.
However, that picture-perfect image was shattered one night in February 2009, when Chris publicly assaulted Rihanna. The saga that followed the assault denied her the privacy that she so rightly deserved. The infamous picture of her battered face was sold and posted in every visual channel of media.
The assault was not only a celebrity spectacle; it was a show of how dense society was at the time in regards to intimate partner and domestic violence. The way the assault was covered by both all kinds of media outlets demonstrated the current and fervent force of misogyny, and specifically, misogynoir.
The assault on Rihanna antedated the cultural moment we are in today, where Black feminism, Womanism, Intersectionality, and critiques of the general public’s voyeuristic nature towards these events are all a part of popular social media language and conversation. Rihanna wasn’t afforded the opportunity of having “Social Justice Warriors” or “Shea Butter Twitter” defend her against the layered attacks she received at the time.
Not only did Rihanna publicly experience trauma at the hands of her assailant, but she also suffered ongoing assaults from media pundits turning her experience with intimate partner violence into a marketing tool under the feigned opportunity to start a dialogue on intimate partner violence and domestic abuse.
Black media, unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, sided with Chris in the tradition of misogynoir. His apology tour contained two prominent tactics: his age and implications of Rihanna’s role in the assault which left room for people to justify his attack.
Chris was insincere about his accountability, proven by his subtle wording and gestures that made it seem as though Rihanna could share some blame in what happened on February 9th. This further fueled the misogynoir she was already facing, even with undeniable visual and written proof of her abuse. Between Chris’ bowtie on David Letterman, his apology song “Cry No More,” and sobbing performance during a Michael Jackson tribute on BET, the singer emotionally manipulated his way back into the public’s good graces.
Black men are rarely held accountable for any harm inflicted on Black women or girls. In fact, most times, the Black community rallies behind abusers like Clarence Thomas, R. Kelly, Ike Turner, James Brown, Dr. Dre, Rick James, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and the list goes on.
There were so many layers to what Rihanna faced during that time: abuse, the loss of a relationship, a permanent stain on her career (go figure), voyeurism, the commodification and commercialism of Black pain, misogynoir, public pressure to be a role model for young people experiencing abuse, and more. She endured her troubles with grace at the tender age of 21.
But she found therapy in her music. The general public failed to recognize Rihanna’s gift to those who have faced trauma and especially to Black women and femmes because it broke away from the “fluff” music which audiences had come to associate with her and her voice.
The album arrived in November of the same year as her assault, and it served as a response to all that she had been holding in prior to the album’s release. Critics automatically compared the project to Janet Jackson’s album Velvet Rope. Both Velvet Rope and Rated R were born out of pain.
While critics finally began to remove Rihanna from the singles artist box, the general public overwhelmingly did not regard Rihanna as a serious artist. Bold, naked, and autobiographical, Rated R left more curiosity than answered questions.
For women and femmes, the socially accepted narratives of trauma either devour us entirely and lead to self-destruction or lead to forgiveness for the abuser (like Beyoncé’s Lemonade). This dichotomy leaves little room for any other narratives of Black women and femme’s journey to healing.
Rihanna’s interview with Diane Sawyer was a warning to viewers that she was not going to assume the role of victimhood, nor was she going to undermine her abuse to save her abuser. She told Diane, “I am strong…This happened to me.” She was honest in touching on factors that were beyond her control which influenced her decision to leave Chris, admitting that it was due to her status as a pop star, not because she fell immediately out of love with him.
She didn’t want to have any guilt and admitted to feeling pressured to be a role model to those looking up to her, as her hypothetical forgiveness could be taken as an endorsement of Chris’ abuse. Because of her visibility, Rihanna felt forced to navigate her life outside of her own will, but Rated R was a way to navigate her trauma with autonomy.
It is undoubtedly an album for victims/survivors to find validation in declining to forgive their abusers and/or in not succumbing to self-destruction. Rihanna sings of violent imagery, with one music video featuring her driving erratically in a car that is already leaking flames and charging towards a man whose face she can’t wait to see as she crashes into him, killing them both in a fiery glory.That imagery comes from “Fire Bomb,” which taps into the complexities of a victim’s/survivor’s state of mind and shows just how rugged, gritty, messy, and violent it all can be.
The lead single from Rated R was “Russian Roulette,” which showcased the more arcane ways victims/survivors of trauma battle between the objective of saving themselves or their abusers in a “you or me” dialectic. Rihanna reveals her vulnerability as she sings of being “terrified” in the situation that is essentially out of her hands, the game of Russian Roulette being a metaphor for abuse.
The first half of the album is dark and it doesn’t let up, while the second half only dives deeper into the psyche of victims/survivors, as a needed reminder that they are still people underneath the cloak of trauma.
Unabashed sex and sensuality are driven by “Rude Boy” and “Te Amo,” which keep the parts of Rihanna’s humanity intact; she is still a sexual and sensual human being, and those characteristics don’t go away because of abuse. Through her songs of sex and sensuality, Rihanna lets victims/survivors know that they are more than just the sum of their traumas.
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Rated R says, “I need some time to think. No, I am not okay, but I’m processing.” There is no definite end of the road to healing or living with the pain of never-ending trauma. While other narratives reinforce the dichotomy of either total forgiveness or the destruction of the person who’s endured abuse, Rihanna’s narrative in Rated R allows for recovery to be messy and anything but linear. She allows for the story to have no concrete ending.
Rated R doesn’t care about the opinions of others. It prioritizes Rihanna, thus showing victims/survivors that the central character to their story is them–something Black woman and femmes are regularly deprived of in narratives addressing our trauma.
Ayika is a midwest-raised Congolese-American writer and creative entrepreneur. In the fall of 2017, she founded The Femme Oasis, a feminist magazine geared towards the actualization, progression, and elevation of all women and femmes.
Ayika’s dedication to the marginalized is rooted in feminist ideology—specifically the work and ideas of Black woman artists, scholars, community organizers, activists, and freedom-fighters. Since coupling her intuitive attention to the disparities created by social stratification and her academic background, Ayika has committed her work and art to the survival of oppressed people within dominating systems of power.