Remember “Pon De Repay”? Thank God for that record. Without it, Rihanna would still be a figment of our non-imagination. How could anyone imagine those beautiful long-locks, that amazing accent, or that IDGAF attitude that would eventually bless our Instagram and Twitter feeds. During the summer of 2005, there was no way to predict the chart-topping juggernaut this girl would turn into. The debut single was deeply immersed in the fad of summers past where using a popular reggae beat over a pop song was the thing to do. It did the job though, because unbeknownst to many, there was more underneath the singer.
Skipping way ahead to the Rihanna of today, we find an artist whose new album, Anti, is absurdly anticipated (just go on social media and search #NewRihannaAlbum) and more astoundingly: she’s a brand. Perfumes, clothing lines, movie roles and, just recently, an agency that focuses on fashion and hair stylists are all endeavors Rihanna charges through like a seasoned pro. But the arena Rihanna has relentlessly sharpened her skills in has been in recording. Her catalog, calculatingly or not, has gotten more complex since 2005.
As we move closer to what seems to be the release of Anti, one thing is already vastly different from her previous albums: the short gap between projects. Those pauses were due mostly to "song camps" her label, Def Jam, would put together. Imagine all of the hit writers of today in one place collaborating? Further, imagine it with Rihanna — someone who’s had to live out her frequent tragedies on TMZ. It’s songwriting gold. As of yet, there hasn’t been a report of such a song camp for Anti, but if the album includes recent singles “FourFive Seconds,” “BBHM” and “American Oxygen,” the roster is already impressive, which boasts input from Mike Dean, Dallas Austin, Kanye West and Alex Da Kid.
There are key moments that have that have transformed Rihanna into the vulnerable powerhouse she’s become; ironic as it is. Those moments exist solely because the following people write for a living.
The Real Dream Starts: Terius “The-Dream” Nash
“Umbrella” really kicked Rihanna into an unprecedented stratosphere despite that the track was meant originally for Britney Spears. It’s safe to say that it was Rihanna’s unorthodox vocals that made the song park itself at #1 for seven weeks. It became a bona-fide radio classic, catch phrase and all. Plus, The-Dream became the “The-Dream” after this. The floodgates opened for this songwriter; floodgates that would eventually become “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” That same year, as a bonus, the songwriter released his debut album as an artist and got in the recording booth with Rihanna for “Livin’ a Lie,” perfectly playing into Rihanna’s vocal strengths.
Years later, The-Dream and Rihanna combo still cranks it out. To date, the most confessional recording on the artist’s catalog is “Mother Mary,” which lives on Unapologetic. A synth soaked ballad that borders on new wave and was written just for her and could only be sung by her. Nothing has been more believable than Rihanna singing: “For you I’ve cried tears sea-deep. Oh glory, the praise carried me.”
See, Rihanna Can Sing: Sia
Back in 2009, Kanye West posted this Sia video on his Kanye University site praising the singer’s pipes, but it wasn’t until Rihanna released her single “Diamonds” that we would hear of Sia as a prolific songwriter to the masses. The 13th #1 single for Rihanna wasn’t just another chart-topper in her belt; it also proved she could sing. Not only could she sing, she could belt songs that were built for arenas. Live performance after live performance of “Diamonds,” RiRi would blow it out of the park and it stands as one of her go-to classics. Sia was that catalyst.
Track Check: “Diamonds”
Charts Wide Open: Stargate
There’s no songwriting team that has given Rihanna access to the charts than Stargate has. The Norwegian team was widely known mostly for their work on Ne-Yo’s debut album, and after a chart-topper here and there they were world renown.
In the world of Rihanna, these guys were the first to give the singer a chance to show some singing chops with “Unfaithful.” They would eventually find their groove with the singer on songs like “Hate That I Love You” and “Don’t Stop the Music.” But they hit their stride with “Take a Bow,” “Rude Boy,” “Only Girl (In the World),”What’s My Name?” and “S&M.” All back-to-back #1 singles for the production pair. That’s almost half of all of Rihanna’s #1s.
Girl in Charge: Ester Dean
It’s been a solid 10 years of Ester working her way up the ranks of the world’s premier songwriters. Her entry into the Rihanna World started when she contributed empowering and sultry songs to 2010’s Loud. But it was her work on Talk That Talk that really showed how seamlessly she could write for the superstar. Ester is essentially the heart of that album, contributing eight songs that all displayed command in matters of the heart and bed. Just peep “Drunk on Love” and “Talk That Talk” totally opposite from one another but still, totally, Rihanna.
Let’s Get Personal: James Fauntleroy
2009’s Rated R showed Rihanna had layers. Essentially, it was a tangible piece of evidence of her attempt to put the Chris Brown assault behind her. James Fauntleroy, now amazingly popular for writing on Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience and features on Kanye’s Cruel Summer, was a songwriting angel. By the time Rated R came around, he already had a plethora of catalog behind him, but writing for Rihanna allowed the flexing of some serious muscle by contributing the right songs on the album.
The songs on Rated R are disconcertingly autobiographical. Even though the album has only sold three million worldwide (making it the second-lowest selling album Rihanna has released) the songs make the album stand tall alongside Rihanna’s subsequent projects. The main highlight, “Firebomb,” contains gut wrenching lyrics about the end of a relationship: “Where we're going, we don't need no brakes / Can't wait to see your face / When your front windows break / And I come crashing through…” Thanks to Rated R, songs recorded by RiRi needed to fulfill a criteria of authenticity and chart-topping potential and like her brand, she’s managed to find the balance.
(Photo: Simone Joyner/Getty Images)