In her interview for the February issue of W Magazine Rihanna talks about her music, her style, and her relationship with Chris Brown. The accompanying spread is similarly themed: sex, violence, and rock & roll.
Rihanna looks great in all of the images, but there are clearly some that are better than others. This one is probably my favorite. She shows off her new tattoo, which reads "never a failure, always a lesson" backwards so she can read it in a mirror. Stylist Lori Goldstein said both the Prada dress (shown here) and the tattoo became an important part of the shoot, as evidenced in this reveal/conceal shot, where Rihanna seems to be pulling it away to expose her collarbone while her other hand pulls it down over her crotch.
The tattoo also has significance for Rihanna's public persona. It reflects her desire to find meaning in her experience, especially her relationship with Chris Brown (W even suggests that she is coming close to "embracing what happened"). The majority of the interview focuses on her affair with Brown, and its aftermath. "At first I completely shut down. But now I feel like this happened to me so I could be a voice for young girls who are going through what I went through and don't know how to talk about it," she says. "It's not about Chris, about hurting him or sabotaging his career. I don't care about that part of it."
Rihanna says her new record, Rated R, is based largely on her relationship with Brown, so any violence in her lyrics can be traced directly back to personal experience. "I started to go crazy after about a month in the house," she says of the time after her breakup with Brown, "so I went back to work, and the mic was my therapist. With the mic, there were no negative comments, no negative energy." Unlike her first two albums, Rihanna was intimately involved with writing the lyrics for Rated R. "It was really personal; it was from me in the most authentic way. It's like a movie," she explained.
Rihanna is clearly trying to appeal to a different demographic. While she recognizes that she has been a role model for younger women, she seems to hope that her fan base is shifting and has created a certain tough-chick persona that she wants to show in her music: "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."
Fittingly, her photos swerve between showing this new toughness and displaying her vulnerability. While the first two pictures show Rihanna looking away, as though afraid, this one depicts the singer as both the victim and perpetrator. Her clothes and hair also contribute to the whole edgy/wounded vibe.
Although Rihanna is posing with her hand wrapped around her neck, there is at least a certain element of control in this picture that was missing in the last one. At least they're her hands, her choice. She says, of her relationship with Brown, "there were control issues, insecurity. When people are insecure they become very controlling and they can get very aggressive and in turn abusive. It doesn't have to be physical. Like they would say bad stuff to you to make you feel lesser than them just so they would have control in the relationship. It takes a big toll on your emotions and on your everyday life." She added, "it changes you."
And finally, here's Rihanna in complete control, staring down the camera with her thumb/gun in her mouth. She's tough alright. But the only thing that irks me about Rihanna's "transformation" is that it seems to rely a little too much on the macho thing. Her version of tough involves guns, leather, and violence. There's a little gender-bending going on, yet nothing revolutionary here. Which is, I suppose, always the problem with women dressing up as men, or taking on a more masculine identity. It can either play with the boundaries of gender, or it can privilege manliness as a source of strength. Rihanna (and, in this case, W) comes a little too close to glamorizing guns and violence, without offering much by way of critique.
Not that this is her responsibility. Rihanna may be relieved to finally be able to speak out about her experience, but she shouldn't be viewed as the spokeswoman for all domestic violence victims. She makes it clear that she has no problem with SNL joking about abuse. "Violence should of course be avoided at any cost, but Saturday Night Live is a show that finds humor in every serious situation, so it wasn't offensive to me in any way," she says.