Of all the women featured in this blog only Madonna, Beyoncé and Rihanna are already immortal. Rihanna’s story is of a Barbadian teenager who was plucked out of a crowd by A&Rs and in under fifteen years outsold every female musician save Madonna. She is endlessly sexy and stylish; a vocal and visual chameleon with a mysteriously immutable core; Josephine Baker, Janet Jackson, Grace Jones and Madonna are her kin.
Her overlooked, reggae-tinged debut era Music of the Sun (2005) was essential in ensuring she’d never lose her Caribbean spirit, and while she was at that time controlled by her label she must always be given credit for her voice, her greatest asset. Those who hear only technical ability won’t appreciate Rihanna’s unmistakable sultry voice which – orphically – brightens any song, which – when her new singles are released – inexorably crosses each ocean to serenade the Western world from radios and phones. During A Girl Like Me (2006), the passionate eighteen-year-old began to tug at her marionette strings until they were severed with Good Girl Gone Bad (2007-8), which started the decade-long project of self-definition that would captivate millions.
While “Umbrella” is a classic song and video, like Madonna her songs and eras are secondary to her personality, increasingly so as she matured and found stronger self-expression. 2008’s “Live Your Life” and 2009’s “Run this Town”, urban songs for which she provides hypnotic choruses, are early signs of the superstar she’d grow into, honing one of the coolest looks in pop. Even with Rated R’s (2009-10) fashion mishaps she retained the coolness which made her the most palatable female pop star to heterosexual males save Adele. That dark, bold era (where she attempts to heal wounds inflicted by her abusive ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, and her father) was followed by her most stylised, Loud (2010-11). The lush, feminine hues of Loud’s videos (especially “Only Girl (In the World)”) represent a rejection of adversity and the salve she found in pop. With her next two eras Talk That Talk (2011-12) and Unapologetic (2012-14) she thrived on and responded to her celebrity, playing with the camera and becoming one of her decade’s most ubiquitous icons, amassing more US number ones than Michael Jackson and Madonna in the process. She meticulously guarded herself from overexposure, and telegraphed her strength, vulnerability and freedom through fashion:
At the CFDA Awards
I’m more endeared to the uneven, solipsistic Anti (2016), with its moments of raw emotion, than to the pitch-perfect Lemonade, and I suspect the “Work” video(s) and the neo-doo-wop ballad “Love on the Brain” will endure longer than anything else from either. But like Beyoncé, Rihanna must not lose her focus on chart success if she’s to fulfil her potential – Anti’s sloppy release strategy verged on self-sabotage, and tracks like “Yeah, I Said It” are best left to the likes of FKA Twigs. Rihanna also began to channel the alternate emoting and detachment of Amy Winehouse, which was at times captivating but accentuated her nihilistic impulses – the tension between nihilism and egotism has always been latent in Rihanna compared to Winehouse, but manifests itself persistently in her magnanimity to Brown, attention-grabbing outfits, inconsistent performances and messy (sometimes distraught) online posts. I sincerely hope this great light doesn’t go down the path of Winehouse or Whitney Houston – if anything her Barbadian insouciance will save her.