Rihanna: The Only Girl In The World
People the world over are drawn to Rihanna like moths to a flame. She has an uncanny ability to connect equally with the person across the table and in the last row of the stadium.
Down to earth and yet so effortlessly out of reach. A nonchalant superhero in a world of mere mortals. To quote two of her biggest hits, she makes us feel like she’s the only girl in the world while at the same time reassuring us all, each and every single person out there, that we’re like diamonds in the sky.
To put it more simply. Rihanna makes us feel good. About her creativity that continues to flourish, about the world, and also about ourselves. That’s why we love her.
To celebrate her incredible 2016, that included the arrival of her eighth studio album, ANTI, as well as an extensive world tour, her FENTY x PUMA fashion line and a casting in the all-female Ocean’s Eleven spin-off, we’ve attempted to break down her distinguished, storybook career into five key phases, commemorating her opulent reign as an artist, cultural icon and singular human being.
Girl From the Sun
Rihanna, born Robyn Rihanna Fenty, began her career in 2005 when she, at age 16, released her dynamic and commercially acclaimed debut album, Music of the Sun, on Def Jam Recordings. Prior to signing with Def Jam, the Barbados-born singer had auditioned for its then-president, JAY Z, who immediately realized that he was witnessing something great: “You see someone who comes in and you know if they have that look about them, that star quality – you can’t deny it,” he later recalled.
Shortly thereafter, Rihanna’s debut single — the dancehall fueled “Pon de Replay” — was released to both critical and commercial acclaim, reaching number two on both the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and the U.K. Singles Chart. A star was born.
The Rise of RiRi
Rihanna’s rise to the top of the charts, not to mention pop stardom, happened practically overnight. Just a month after releasing her debut album, she began work on the follow-up, A Girl Like Me, released in early 2006. The album included the hit singles “SOS” and “Unfaithful” and went on to sell platinum.
By now, it was already evident that Rihanna was no ordinary pop star, but it wasn’t until the release of her third album, Good Girl Gone Bad, that she was catapulted into icon status. Leading the charge was the album’s groundbreaking first single, “Umbrella” (feat. JAY Z), which lived on the charts for a solid year and eventually earned Rihanna her first Grammy Award in 2008. To this day “Umbrella” remains one of the all time best-selling singles worldwide, while the LP remains her best-selling to date.
In his 2009 review of Rihanna’s fourth studio album, Rated R, New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica wrote, “Over the years, as her game face froze in place, her voice cured into a weapon of emotional chill and strategic indifference. It’s decidedly unfriendly, made to give orders. It matters way more than anything she might say.” In other words, the release of Rihanna’s emotionally riveting and attitudinal fourth album marked a shift in her career towards something darker and less conciliatory.
This was readily evident on her Eminem collaboration, “Love the Way You Lie,” and on “Run This Town” with JAY Z and Kanye West, but this shift in style was even further explored and perfected on her top-selling follow-up records, Loud (2011) and Talk That Talk (2012), and exemplified by songs like “Skin,” “S&M” and “Cockiness (Love It).” In between recording the two albums, she also embarked on a globe-conquering world tour, which included selling out ten nights at the The O2 Arena in London. In short: The world now belonged to Rihanna.
The Queen of Diamonds
Rihanna kicked off a huge 2012 with two major collaborations: lending her hit-assuring vocals to Coldplay’s “Princess of China” and Drake’s “Take Care.” But it was the release of her seventh studio album, Unapologetic, that cemented her status as one of the world’s biggest and most successful artists. The album was lead by the magnificent and celebratory single “Diamonds,” a grandiose, slow-building and ultimately euphoric pop smash that went on to sell more than 7.5 million copies worldwide.
The record’s next single, “Stay,” went in a completely different direction, displaying a more vulnerable and emotional side to the singer, beautifully mirrored in the accompanying video directed by Sophie Muller. The following year Rihanna won her sixth Grammy Award, as well as embarking on yet another world tour, making history when she became the youngest and first female artist to sell out the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa.
ANTI: “I got to do things my own way darling”
Which brings us to the present. Following a year of intriguing teasers, spirited rumors and a slew of diverse and highly captivating non-album singles — from the unexpected acoustic charm of “FourFiveSeconds” (feat. Kanye West and Paul McCartney), the political charge of “American Oxygen” and the domineering aggression of “Bitch Better Have My Money” — the anxious wait for Rihanna’s eighth album was finally over.
Flying in just behind the infectious splendor of last minute insta-hit, “Work” (feat. Drake), ANTI was finally here, ringing in a new chapter of her ever-inspiring career. Alongside Drake’s attendance, SZA and Travi$ Scott also appeared on the album, with writing and production from the likes of the Weeknd, Timbaland, The-Dream, DJ Mustard, No I.D., Boi-1da, Hit-Boy and PARTYNEXTDOOR.
ANTI is easily the 28-year old pop icon’s most mature album to date. Artistically and musically varied, it turns its back on bangers and instead offers a confessional, intimate and introverted sonic landscape that is unlike anything in Rihanna’s career. Ranging from slow-jams to harder beats and the final number, a piano ballad “Close To You,” all with the quality we expect from her. In addition there’s a psychedelic and haunting Tame Impala cover as well as a devastatingly beautiful doo-wop torch song (“Love on the Brain”).
In hindsight what really makes ANTI such a tremendous and emblematic release is the way it – in its own deeply personal and insidious way – sets an impossible standard while defining the year for everyone else. ANTI is an album. Not just a collection of songs, but a carefully and brilliantly executed work of art, with each idiosyncratic track leading into the next, like chapters of a book of short stories by a noted author.
What makes it stand out though is the way it articulates an idiosyncratic and wavering artistic expression that is rooted in detachment and disillusionment: “And babe I’m fist-fighting with fire. Just to get close to you,” Rihanna croons on the aforementioned “Love on the Brain.” She’s got conflicting emotions, hasn’t figured everything out, but knows well that what’s good for her isn’t necessarily good for her. It’s her embrace of uncertainty, as a strength, is uncommon, and that is perfectly alright.
“I got to do things my own way darling,” she sings on album opener “Consideration.” And that she did.
Following the release of ANTI, Rihanna kicked off her gigantic and massively-hyped ANTI WORLD TOUR in February, which included a total of 75 shows in North America, Europe and Asia and featured special guest Travis Scott on the North American dates, while DJ Mustard and Big Sean helped her take over Europe.
One question lingered though before Rihanna embarked on her seventh world tour: Would the emotional rawness and vulnerability in her new songs that come across so well with a nice set of headphones translate well on a big stage, with a live band? Anyone who attended one of her concerts on the tour knows the answer is an affirmative.
The first song on the setlist throughout the tour was “Stay”, a captivating and slow burning ballad from 2013’s Unapologetic. Singing the song, Rihanna took the stage dressed in a hooded, beige-white gown, looking like a mix between a boxer and a monk. It was a powerful way to open a show. You expect fireworks and the whole shebang and instead you get a slow paced depiction of heartbreak and longing. Like someone holding a corkscrew to your heart. It was a truly magnificent moment – no matter where in the world you witnessed it – thousands holding their breath at the same time, hanging on to every word.
The rest of setlist on the tour relied heavily on songs from ANTI, while adroitly mixing it up with a selection of her biggest hits such as “Umbrella”, “We Found Love” and “Diamonds”.
When Rihanna finally wrapped up the ANTI WORLD TOUR with a show at Global Citizen Festival in New York, she did so with a mesmerizing and otherworldly performance of “Love on the Brain.” That song in particular represents the transformation of the Rihanna that we got to see in 2016. To quote Stereogum, the song “deserves to become a singing-competition standby for years to come.”
With ANTI Rihanna emerged as a true singer with a voice that seemed to have no limits. This became immediately clear to everyone witnessing her performance of “Love on the Brain” at the 2016 Billboard Awards – one of the most captivating performances of the entire year.
Wearing a green fur stole, black suit and dark sunglasses and armed only with her voice, Rihanna left no doubt that she intended to make 2016 her year. But she did so in a manner that was both understated, dignified and graceful. Above all though it was a bold and fearless performance from an artist that was determined to do things her own way.
Read our review of Rihanna live at Barclay’s here.
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