Born in Saint Michael, Barbados in 1988, Robyn Rihanna Fenty comes from Afro-Guyanese stock on her mother’s side and Bajan/Irish on her father’s. She grew up in Bridgetown listening to reggae music and aimed for a career in the music business as a teenager. Producer Evan Rogers heard of her prowess and invited her to audition, not quite on a whim but definitely out of curiosity: anyhoo - she performed Destiny’s Child’s “Emotion” and Mariah Carey’s “Hero”. Evan is convinced. Rogers took Rihanna and her mother to New York where the girl demo'd and then won a contract aged 16 having won over an initially sceptical Jay Z who did the smart thing and rewarded the starlet with a six-album deal on Def Jam Recordings.
Her debut single, the track that had floored Jay Z, was “Pon de Replay”, a cut that would go on to sell over 2 million copies in time. Jay Z knew the song was strong but feared it would make Rihanna a one-hit wonder. Err, noope.
The breakout album is Music of the Sun where producers including Rogers, The Carter Administration, Carl Sturken, StarGate and others help mold the dancehall fusion of pop and R&B that will make Rihanna's name sing. If you’re mostly familiar with her later work this is well worth discovery since it’s a remarkably assured and prodigiously precocious start that pays homage to her Caribbean roots and locates the contemporary heart and soul of urban dance-pop.
The hit “If It’s Lovin’ that You Want” and a great cover of Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No)” – written by Bo Diddley - are evident highlights. The UK bonus track edition also includes “Should I”, featuring J-Status and pointer to a new direction.
A Girl Like Me (2006) is where Rihanna soars. The hits are plentiful: “SOS” is a chart topper made memorable by its sample of Gloria Jones singing “Tainted Love”, “Unfaithful” and “Break It Off” follow in hot pursuit. Recording in a variety of American and Jamaican studios Rihanna finds her voice here, abetted by Sean Paul, Cory Gunz and fellow Barbadian Dwane Husbands. You can hear her linking disparate musical cultures and revelling in the introduction of a full string section. The Deluxe edition features five other cuts with the remix on “Unfaithful” being guaranteed floor filler.
In 2007 the planet starts to succumb to Rihanna’s third album Good Girl Gone Bad – worldwide sales thus far are in excess of 10 million. A #1 in the UK this is the moment being seized by an artist on top of her game. Cue her: “I basically took the attitude of the bad girl and I really got rebellious and just did everything the way I wanted to do it—I didn't want to listen to anybody. I didn't consult with anybody. I just want to have a little more fun with my music and be a little more experimental in terms of my image and my sound. I just reinvented myself.” We love the results.
The story-telling “Hate That I Love You” (featuring Ne-Yo) is a highlight but you can’t ignore “Umbrella” where Rihanna and Jay Z nail the groove on a song that topped the UK charts for ten consecutive weeks – during a flood season! – and turned the girl into daily celebrity gold. Everyone from Biffy Clyro and Taylor Swift to Manic Street Preachers and McFly has covered it; the mark of a classic, “Umbrella” is one of those season defining tunes.
Various bonus formats are available, including Dance Remixes on the Deluxe edition. And being onto such a good thing what better way to keep it bubbling than with Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded (new songs include “Disturbia” and “If I Never See Your Face Again”) and Good Girl Gone Bad: The Remixes, where a sharper electronic bite transposes Rihanna from the radio to the dance floor and gives her genuine female icon status.
Rated R drew the singer into the production booth where she is credited as Robyn Fenty. As such she sat in with Brian Kennedy and will.i.am and came up with a moody, atmospheric set that doesn’t shy away from the personal experience of violence and brutality in soured love affairs. With Latin and reggae rhythms filtering throughout the most talked about cut is “Cold Case Love” where all the critics came onside for an awesome epic that is perfectly realised by the singer, the production crew and the original writing team – including Justin Timberlake, an avowed fan.
By contrast “Rockstar 101” has Slash’s lead guitar soldering a metal slide to a chilly slab of hip-hop (Rihanna famously plays Slash in the video). “Te Amo” is lovely Electro-Latin and “Rude Boy”, recorded at Metropolis Studios in London, struts on a gritty urban ragamuffin style. The Remixed accompaniment is heavily drenched in house music with extra synthesisers and smart bodywork from Chew Fu.
Back to the studio for album #5. Loud is like it says. “California King Bed” rocks Rihanna right out and “Cheers (Drink to That)” is a celebratory party anthem that is aimed at the weekend. It samples Avril Lavigne’s “I’m with You”. Also check the gangster tune “Man Down”, a nod at Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sherriff”, the saucy “S&M” and “Raining Men”, a rap face off between Rihanna and Nicky Minaj: sisters in arms.
Eight million copies of the Loud event later Rihanna decided not to follow the reload/remix path but concentrate on her new work. Talk That Talk is the result with the title track returning Jay Z to the mic and Ri to the top of the charts. Characterized as Rihanna’s naughtiest - an alternative title would be Rated X – we love “You da One” for the dubstep groove and the East London filmed video nodding at A Clockwork Orange. “Cockiness (Love It)” is more down and dirty dancehall while “We Found Love” is written, produced and features Calvin Harris. This track is a story all by itself. Not only has it sold nigh on 11 million copies on single and download formats it’s also reckoned to be one of the best selling singles of all time. Happy Mr. Harris! Covers on this come from Jessie J and Coldplay – Chris Martin being another high-profile Rihanna aficionado – join the club, mate.
The talk having been talked Rihanna was Unapologetic in 2012 and her seventh studio album made top slot in the vital German market, also Canada, the UK and US, meaning that in seven short years she has gone from being an unknown artist to a formidable brand. The internationalism is hammed home by the hits “Diamonds” and “Stay” and a selection of her most sophisticated music elsewhere. Rihanna’s vocals are exemplary throughout and she grabs the zeitgeist of 20-something youth culture, emerging as the perfectly formed diva.
It has been a steady and logical evolution. Rihanna hasn’t drastically veered away from what she does best but she has kept up an incredibly high standard in the most demanding and unforgiving of arenas. Subtle tweaks along the way, like using David Guetta on Unapologetic and bringing rising UK star Labrinth into the fold are evidence that someone is doing something right. There are careful switches being flicked too on the Deluxe edition where we hear a far more experimental and introspective artist tackling Emeli Sandé’s “Half of Me”, an unexpectedly dark gaze into the mirror of superstardom.
It’s like people think they know who Rihanna is, but just in case she is going to turn the tables. Who knows where she goes next? She’s not the only girl in the world but get ready for some American Oxygen takeover in any case.
Words: Max Bell
When you've released a pair of albums containing a few monster singles and a considerable amount of unsteady, unassured material, why mess around the third time out? From beginning to end, Good Girl Gone Bad is as pop as pop gets in 2007, each one of its 12 songs a potential hit in some territory. Unlike Music of the Sun or A Girl Like Me, neither Caribbean flavorings nor ballad ODs are part of the script, and there isn't an attempt to make something as theatrical as "Unfaithful." There is, however, another '80s hit involved: just as "SOS" appropriated Soft Cell's version of "Tainted Love," "Shut Up and Drive" turns New Order's "Blue Monday" into a sleek, forthcoming proposition, one that is as undeniable and rocking as Sugababes' 2002 U.K. smash "Freak Like Me" (a cover of Adina Howard's 1995 hit that swiped from another '80s single, Gary Numan's "Are Friends Electric?"). "Shut Up and Drive" is part of an all-upbeat opening sequence that carries through five songs. Rihanna knows exactly what she wants and is in total control at all times, even when she's throwing things and proclaiming "I'm a fight a man" amid marching percussion and synthesizers set on "scare" during "Breakin' Dishes." The album's lead song and lead single, "Umbrella," is her best to date, delivering mammoth if spacious drums, a towering backdrop during the chorus, and vocals that are somehow totally convincing without sounding all that impassioned -- an ideal spot between trying too hard and boredom, like she might've been on her 20th take, which only adds to the song's charm. The album's second half is relatively varied and a little heavier on acoustic guitar use, but it's not lacking additional standouts. Three consecutive Timbaland productions, including one suited for a black college marching band and another that effectively pulls the romantically codependent heartstrings, enhance the album rather than make it more scattered.
Words: Andy Kellman
Loud would not sound quite so slapdash if it did not follow Good Girl Gone Bad, one of the best pop albums of its decade, and Rated R, one of the most fascinating pop albums of the same time frame. This album, released less than a year after the latter, also has the misfortune of arriving with no fanfare; a dramatic intro proclaiming “The wait is ova,” à la Rated R's opening track, would be silly. Even without considering the weight of what it follows, there’s no getting past the notion that Loud is as uneven as Rihanna’s first two albums. It’s more an unfocused assortment of poor-to-solid songs than a unified set. The predatory StarGate/Sandy Vee-produced dance-pop (“S&M,” “Only Girl [In the World]”) is what works best here. Though neither one can touch “Rude Boy,” they do efficiently balance Rihanna’s playful and sinister sides. One song that sounds nothing like anything else in Rihanna’s past is “Skin,” a contender for anti-gravity slow jam of 2010 -- a match for Trey Songz's “Red Lipstick” and Usher’s “Mars vs Venus.” The low points -- the cluttered “Complicated,” the unfinished-sounding Nicki Minaj collaboration “Raining Men,” the overwrought rock weeper “California King Bed” -- weigh the album down, making it resemble a fourth-quarter stopgap as Rihanna prepares her next truly eventful release. There’s just enough quality content to maintain her visibility.
Words: Andy Kellman
Despite sounding rushed to capitalize on fourth quarter sales, 2010’s Loud proved that Rihanna’s reign indeed would not let up. The album’s first three singles topped the Hot 100. A fourth one merely went Top Ten. Just as Loud was losing its grip, during the fourth quarter of 2011, Rihanna fired again with another number one single, “We Found Love” -- its success more likely due to the singer’s ecstatic vocal than Calvin Harris' shrill, plinky production. While Talk That Talk is built like another singles-chart-devouring machine, it’s both more rounded and less random than Loud. “We Found Love” and “Where Have You Been” -- the latter with a quote from Geoff Mack's “I’ve Been Everywhere” and echoes of the chorus from Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” -- function as place-holding dance tracks, and there are a couple empty anthems and ballads in the drippy “We All Want Love” and the bombastic “Farewell.” It’s the darker and dirty-minded material that tends to be most effective -- where Rihanna is more alive and believable, where her collaborators provide the most adventurous productions. In the Bangladesh-produced “Cockiness (Love It),” one of the most hypnotic and wicked beats of the last decade, Rihanna absolutely relishes the chance to sing-taunt “Suck my cockiness, swallow my persuasion.” Two of Stargate and Esther Dean's three contributions -- the desperate, xx-sampling “Drunk on Love“ (“Nothing can sober me up”) and the prowling “Roc Me Out” -- pack more sleek menace than Rated R's “G4L” and Loud’s “S&M.” The album’s best track, however, is the wholly sweet and flirtatious “Watch n’ Learn,” featuring a dizzying Hit-Boy beat -- rat-a-tat snares, swirling/swelling synthesizers, irresistible plucked melodies -- that is even more unique in the context of 2011 pop radio than his work on Kanye West and Jay-Z's “Ni**as in Paris.” Behind Good Girl Gone Bad and Rated R, this is Rihanna's third best album to date. Minus the fluff, it's close to the latter's equal.
Words: Andy Kellman
In 2012, right on schedule, Rihanna delivered her fourth annual November album. The singer took a different route with the lead single. She didn't go with a dramatic ballad like "Russian Roulette" or a big dance number like "Only Girl (In the World)" and "We Found Love." Instead, the nod went to a midtempo pop ballad, "Diamonds" -- as in "We're like diamonds in the sky" (rather than stars in a mine), a simple and effective, light in meaning yet massive in sonics, quasi-processional. Even with that change of pace, the possibility of it signaling an overall change in direction was slight. Not only is Unapologetic just as varied as Rihanna's past albums -- it's another timely refresh of contemporary pop music -- but it's a little more exploratory and a whole lot deeper, too. Continuing the trend that began on Rated R, Rihanna's at her best when she's flaunting. This goes for "Pour It Up," a characteristically chilly and booming Mike Will collaboration that might as well be a sequel to "Bandz a Make Her Dance," the producer's hit with Juicy J. Wrapped in a serene sneer, Rihanna's trash talk is something else. Moments such as that one are so convincing that the few everywoman heart-on-sleeve songs -- with the exception of the massive, slamming, wailing power ballad that is "What Now" -- don't sound all that natural. Two of the album's most intriguing, contrasting, and not-so-everywoman tracks appear consecutively during the latter half. Both of them were written and produced by Terius "The-Dream" Nash and Carlos "Los" McKinney. "Nobody's Business," flecked with elements from Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel," is a beaming if somewhat belligerent disco-house duet with Chris Brown. Rihanna's partner proposes to make out in a Lexus prior to proclaiming that the relationship "ain't nobody's business." The celebration is followed by "Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary," conjoined songs with a wide theatrical scope akin to that of the-Dream's own "Nikki, Pt. 2/Abyss." Over a swelling and receding production with echoes of Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis' Eyes," Rihanna mourns ("Felt like love struck me in the night/I pray that love don't strike twice"), then confesses ("Mother Mary, I swear I wanna change"), then surrenders ("I'm prepared to die in the moment"). Perhaps no one should read anything into it. The same could be said of "No Love Allowed," which comes along a little later. Even with a captivating, drum-less reggae groove, it's hard to hear lines like "Your love hit me to the core" and "It's so foolish how you keep me wanting more" and think that she's fine and could be singing about anyone. While this is a fine, if uneven album, the only way to enjoy a significant portion of it is by taking it as pure entertainment. Good luck.
Words: Andy Kellman
Versatile urban dance-pop singer Rihanna gracefully avoids the sophomore slump with A Girl Like Me, a less tropical-flavored, more urban effort than her sun-and-fun debut. Then again, it's hard to be an effervescent island goddess 24-7 when your love life has suffered a crushing blow, something inferred by the numerous heartbreaking ballads included, all of them elegant, mature, and displaying artistic growth. Fans of her brilliant single "Pon de Replay" need not worry, though, as the album kicks off with its equal. Bursting out of the speakers, "SOS" is a sexy club tune that bites the bleepy riff from Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" in a very modern, very exciting mash-up fashion. The crunchy reggae of "Kisses Don't Lie" offers a less revolutionary alternative to Damien Marley's "Welcome to Jamrock." Then the album gets bolder and seamlessly bounces from genre to genre. Attempting things that would make lesser artists crumble, Rihanna goes from a film noir song that elegantly uses murder as a metaphor for cheating ("Unfaithful") to an easy-flowing weekend cruiser ("We Ride"). Even more stunning is the jump from the 2006 prom-song candidate "Final Goodbye" to the totally juiced "Break It Off," where she gives guest star and dancehall king Sean Paul some serious competition. The good but not great redo of "If It's Lovin' That You Want" with Corey Gunz is the only track approaching filler, but it's clearly marked "bonus," so it's a wash. Executive produced by Jay-Z, A Girl Like Me is unsurprisingly polished, yet a richer experience than you'd expect from a singer responsible for the summer jam of 2005, arguably 2006.
Words: David Jeffries
"Russian Roulette," released weeks prior to Rated R, just hinted at Rihanna's sudden desire to provoke. Even with the realization that it is metaphorical, the song startles with its hesitant gasps, spinning cylinders, and verses that are glacially paced, where a cold piano line and the slight inflections in Rihanna's voice are front and center. And then there’s an audible shudder followed by a discharged bullet -- the abrupt end to one of Rated R’s most restrained moments. It’s not the only instance where Rihanna’s rise in fame, combined with being the victim in the decade’s highest-profile felonious assault, added up to a perfect-storm scenario for a creative overhaul. Rated R is more like Good Girl Gone Evil, or Abused Girl Full of Vengeful Rage, not Good Girl Gone Bad, where the only casualties were some dishes. The closest the set gets to upbeat pop is “Rude Boy,” and by any standard it is stern; needless to say, there is quite a difference between “Can you get it up?” and “You can stand under my umbrella.” Much of this daring album is absolutely over the top, bleak and sleek both lyrically and sonically, but it’s compelling, filled with as many memorably belligerent lines -- two of which, “I pitch with a grenade/Swing away if ya feeling brave” and “I’m such a fuckin’ lady,” set the tone early on -- as a rap album made ripe for dissection. “G4L,” over a low-slung and sleek production, is the most fantastical of all, in which Rihanna leads a band of homicidal women, opening with “I lick the gun when I’m done ‘cause I know that revenge is sweet” and “Any mothaf*cka wanna disrespect/Playin’ with fire finna get you wet.” The breakup song, “Fire Bomb,” even though it is also metaphorical, is a close second in terms of lyrical extremity: “I just wanna set you on fire so I won’t have to burn alone.” Some of the breathers -- the songs that are less intense -- hold the album back since Rihanna sounds detached from them. The one exception is the wistful, bittersweet “Photographs,” a rare instance of the singer dropping her guard, but it really sticks out since it is surrounded by material that has her taking the variably authentic roles of abused lover, dominatrix, and murderer. Whether the album seems ridiculous or spectacular (or both), Rihanna's complete immersion in the majority of the songs cannot be disputed. That is the one thing that is not up for debate.
Words: Andy Kellman
Given the proliferation of young and beautiful urban dance-pop divas dominating the radio and music video airwaves in 2005, it initially was tempting to discount Rihanna as yet another Beyoncé-Ciara-Ashanti cash-in. But like her Def Jam labelmate Teairra Mari -- another young and beautiful urban dance-pop diva who emerged out of nowhere in 2005 -- Rihanna is winsome rather than wannabe, thanks in no small part to her producers. Just as Teairra Mari benefited greatly from irresistibly shrewd beat-making on her debut album, Rihanna benefits from the knowing production work of Syndicated Rhythm Productions, aka Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken, who together produced a laundry list of contemporary teen pop sensations during the prior decade. What these guys do that's so irresistibly shrewd is synthesize Caribbean rhythms and beats with standard-issue urban dance-pop: Caribbean-inflected urban, if you will. So while a song like "Pon de Replay" -- to pick the most obvious exhibit -- is driven by booming dancehall-lite beats and a reggae vocal cadence (and title spelling), it's a simple dance-pop song at its core, with standard English-language singing as well as a can't-miss singalong hook (and a glitzy, urban-style MTV video to boot). The best songs on Music of the Sun follow this appealing template, including the similarly catchy few songs that follow the aforementioned album-opening smash hit: "Here I Go Again," "If It's Lovin' That You Want," and "You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)." As with most albums of this ilk, Music of the Sun descends into faceless slow jams after a while, overall consistency not being among its attributes, but thankfully it picks up the pace toward the end of its 13-song run and concludes on a fun note, with a remix of "Pon de Replay" featuring Elephant Man. The result is one of the more engaging urban dance-pop albums of the year (and one of the most infectious summer jams, for sure), as well as a nice Caribbean primer for those not ready or willing to jump on the increasingly trendy dancehall and reggaeton bandwagons concurrently sweeping through America's more fashionable cities.
Words: Jason Birchmeier