Rihanna can sometimes seem less like an artist and more like a deity - omnipresent yet elusive, multi-hyphenate yet expert, she defies simple description. Commanding the charts for the last decade with bold hits and, recently, with her wildly successful beauty and fashion businesses, deftly pulling off the oft-attempted but rarely executed crossover from “famous singer” to “famous person”, Rihanna has always been a powerhouse, an innovator and, from start to finish, an artist to whom we can attribute some of the most iconic and enduring moments in pop music over the last 15 years.
With new music confirmed on the way and the promise of a new chapter lying ahead, we look back on the juggernaut’s almost twenty-year long career and pay tribute to her impact so far.
Rihanna, born Robyn Rihanna Fenty, got her start in 2003 (at 15 years old) auditioning for an American producer visiting her hometown of Barbados. Her impressive performance quickly led to an audition in front of then Def Jam president Jay-Z, who was immediately struck by her talent, confidence and tenacity (Jay-Z would continue to be a mentor and guide to Rihanna throughout her career, leading to her eventual signing with his Roc Nation imprint in 2014).
Soon came her debut album ‘Music of the Sun’ in 2005, which introduced Rihanna’s distinctive and soulful style to the world with the booming Bajan Creole-inspired dance hit ‘Pon de Replay’. Her 2006 follow-up ‘Girl Like Me’ leant more into R&B styles whilst keeping the light, sun-drenched roots of her debut, spawning R&B ballad ‘Unfaithful’ and spunky club bop ‘SOS’.
BAD GAL RIRI
It’s hard to overstate Rihanna’s enduring success and impact on contemporary pop, much of which was born out of this next period in her career. One truth should not - and cannot - be glossed over amidst the cries for new music: Rihanna has been a hit-making machine for years, and never more so than between 2007-2012. This, the most quintessentially “Bad Gal Riri” era of her musical career, saw her release albums at the astonishingly prolific rate of one per year. Rihanna owned the charts during this time, her name becoming almost synonymous with the music industry itself.
Rihanna’s album releases across this time period were assertive, swaggering and maximalist, dancing across every genre including pop, rock, hip hop and R&B whilst keeping true to her Caribbean roots. Through her confident and seamless experimentation, Rihanna redefined what it meant to be a “pop” artist: being unafraid to pull from a million different influences all at once.
Her third album, 2007’s ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’, was the catalyst for a truly stratospheric rise to music superstardom. Today ‘Umbrella’ enjoys transcendent pop hit status, but this aside, the album was a gift that kept on giving - the slick, full-bodied production of Timbaland and Justin Timberlake on ‘Rehab’, the propulsive and careening jaunt of ‘Shut Up & Drive’ and ‘Please Don’t Stop the Music’ (the latter sampling the addictive “Mama-se, mama-sa, ma-ma-coo-sa” Michael Jackson refrain) and the 2000s guitar-pop purity on ‘Hate That I Love You’ came together through Rihanna’s powerful vocal delivery and self-assuredness. (We also have this era to thank for the ever-delicious pop lyric, “You look so dumb right now / Standing outside my house / Trying to apologise, you’re so ugly when you cry” from ‘Take A Bow’)
Albums ‘Rated R’ (2009), ‘Loud’ (2010) and ‘Talk That Talk’ (2011) came hot and fast, where Rihanna leaned into her most brazen and raunchy musical persona yet. Brash and prickly hits like ‘Rude Boy’, ‘S&M’ and ‘Only Girl In The World’ came out of this era, as well as dancehall-inspired tracks like ‘Man Down’ and ‘What’s My Name’. We also saw Rihanna lean into EDM with ‘We Found Love’ and ‘Where Have You Been’, and outside of these albums, feature on legendary collaborations with rap favourites of the time, including ‘Love The Way You Lie’ with Eminem, and ‘Fly’ with Nicki Minaj.
‘Unapologetic’, Rihanna’s last album with Def Jam in 2012, gave us ‘Stay’, one of her softest songs to date, and laid the groundwork for Rihanna on power ballads with ‘Diamonds’. Certainly not holding back on firepower though, the album also gave us sticky steampunk on ‘Phresh Out the Runway’, which Rihanna sang as she famously upstaged an entire roster of professional models as guest performer at the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
2015’s ‘FourFiveSeconds’ was unlike any song Rihanna had ever released before, uniting with Sir Paul McCartney in a quirky, Americana-esque, guitar-led harmony fest. She followed this up with the career-defining ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, an unreservedly hard, no holds barred statement of “Do not f*ck with me”. No one does braggadocious better and more authentically than Rihanna, and this was the pinnacle of that element.
A musical paradigm shift took hold in 2016 with ‘ANTI’, Rihanna’s last album (to date). Markedly less concerned with pandering to radio and engineering pop hits, ‘ANTI’ is one of her most sonically and texturally interesting projects, understated but surely not uncomplicated. Lead single ‘Work’ was a love letter to dancehall riddims and Jamaican patois, whilst album tracks ‘Consideration’ (featuring SZA), ‘Needed Me’ and ‘Desperado’ gave us sweaty, prickly and endlessly intriguing production. The album also delivered a suite of rock & roll-infused power ballads like ‘Higher’, ‘Love on the Brain’ and ‘Kiss It Better’.
Rihanna entered total superstardom mode in 2017 with the launch of her own cosmetics brand, FentyBeauty, which kicked the door down for inclusivity and representation in makeup and beauty. Lingerie brand Savage x Fenty soon followed, with a similar mission of inclusivity in size and shape. Bringing to these ventures the same sense of freewheeling dare and ambition as her musical experimentation, Rihanna has devoted much of the last few years to these businesses, hitting billionaire status in 2021.
LIFT ME UP
The years between 2016’s ‘Anti’ and now have been marked musically for Rihanna by strong, scene-stealing features on fellow artists’ tracks, namely 2017’s ‘Wild Thoughts’ with DJ Khaled and ‘LOYALTY’ with Kendrick Lamar. Her last musical appearance to date was on PartyNextDoor’s ‘Believe It’ in 2020. Now, breaking her six-year solo music silence, Rihanna is releasing two tracks for the upcoming ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ sequel. One of them, ‘Lift Me Up’, is out now. Never one for shying away, she will return to performing with nothing less than the Super Bowl halftime show in 2023. A dramatic and high stakes re-entrance, befitting only Rihanna.
Get your copy of the latest issue
More like this
Lifted from the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack.
The song was penned for the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack.
The single is for the upcoming Black Panther film, Wakanda Forever.
Will we be getting our first taste of R9?