Calling the shotsMany artists take the same career turns as others before them. The more daring turn left instead of right. But neither option appeals to Rihanna - she just hurtles straight into the unknown.
A decade ago, Rihanna made a bold claim in a magazine interview: “I want to be the black Madonna.” Fast-forward to 2017, and she has enjoyed sales of more than 54 million albums and 210 million tracks - the first artist to achieve 100 million gold and platinum certifications. She released seven albums in the first eight years of her recording career, and became the youngest solo artist to score 14 U.S. No. 1 singles.
Naturally she has also picked up many major awards, including eight Grammys and several Brits. No wonder she’s admired by fans, critics and even her peers. “All my adult life I’ve looked up to her, even though she’s younger than me,” Drake said at the 2016 VMAs. “She’s a living, breathing legend in our industry.”
Rihanna’s achievements would be impressive enough if she’d observed the rules of what pop stars – particularly female ones – “should” do, “shouldn’t” say and “mustn’t” think. But by dismissing what’s expected of the usual pop star, Rihanna became the ultimate pop star. She became one of the most successful artists of the millennium by breaking rules or, just as often, completely ignoring them.
Her career reads like an object lesson in following your instincts, and in 2016 she pulled off her most audacious move, releasing the raw, subdued Anti. This was not the happy, uplifting pop album many expected, but Rihanna’s fans enjoyed the challenge of a fresh direction, largely, it seems, because she has always spoken to them as equals, breeding mutual respect.
“I want to be a peer to my fans,” she told Oprah in 2012. “I want them to feel comfortable knowing that I have flaws as well.”
Rihanna first arrived on the scene at a similar time to Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, in the mid- to late 2000s, just as the traditional media was making way for social media. Each of those acts used social media in a slightly different way, but it has always felt as if Rihanna, more than her peers, gives fans a glimpse of her real self.
Sometimes, rather brilliantly, this has meant talking over the heads of the media. In 2013, Rihanna was the subject of a newspaper article by U.K. columnist Liz Jones, who in the ultraconservative Daily Mail labeled her a “toxic role model.” Rihanna responded that Jones was a “sad sloppy menopausal mess!!!”
The singer later explained she’d never asked to be a role model, and when the magazine NME asked if she would ever work with the likes of Taylor Swift, she said, “I don’t think our brands are the same. In my mind, she’s a role model; I’m not.”
Whatever the case, Rihanna has struck a chord with fans, including those in high places: She has signed high-profile endorsement deals with everyone from MAC to Dior, Puma to Samsung. “There is no one else that excites me more,” noted designer Alexander Wang in the profile that accompanied Rihanna’s third Vogue cover.
The 15-year-old Rihanna wouldn’t have dreamed these things possible when she approached New York-based songwriter/producer Evan Rogers, who was on vacation in Barbados. She’d formed a girl band with two friends, but her star power outshone the others. “I said to myself,’If that girl can sing, then holy shit!’” Rogers later recalled. “She had such a presence. Her makeup was perfect, and she had these capri pants and matching sneakers, with her green eyes and her long supermodel neck.”
It was a sentiment echoed a few months later during her first meeting with Jay-Z. By that time she’d recorded a handful of demos, including “Pon de Replay,” which would be her first single, and was looking for a record deal. “I signed her in one day,” Jay-Z later told Rolling Stone. “It took me two minutes to see she was a star.” Rihanna had met with Jay-Z before seeing other labels, and he insisted she stay in his office until the paperwork was ready. The story goes that Rihanna finally left the building at 4 a.m.
Even a powerful ally like Jay-Z has learned when to leave Rihanna to her own devices. “I can’t control the outcome of her life,” he said more recently. “I can’t intervene. I can give advice when asked and that’s it.”
The 16-year-old he met went on to have a global hit with her first album, went platinum with her second and became a star with her third. But it was her fourth, the gritty Rated R, which followed her bruising relationship with Chris Brown, that made her a superstar. “I had to rebel and do it my way,” Rihanna said about taking her own path when others, her record label included, might have wanted something more commercial. “I had to jump ship in order to achieve that. Without permission.”
By 2015, Rihanna was so confident in her own vision that she turned down recording Major Lazer’s “Lean On” - it became the most streamed song of all time - and even rejected songs from major hit makers like Calvin Harris. Other, more vulnerable artists might have felt pressure to record them, but Rihanna took her time to find the right sound, underlining her credentials as one of the most important pop stars of her generation.
Rihanna’s confidence, it seems, comes from a robust sense of self. “It’s important for me to know who I am and work with that,” she said in 2013. “[Haters] are gonna keep knocking away until all this comes crashing down. But I’m not gonna ever crash. I’m in control.”
Asked by this writer where she saw herself as an 80-year-old, Rihanna answered with characteristic candor: covered in tattoos, happy, on the beach. Whether she’ll stick to that plan is anyone’s guess. As the free-thinking, straight-talking pop icon insists, “I just have a way of breaking the rules - even when I don’t intend to.”