Music/Features

Rihanna’s genre-bending body of work is a lesson in reinvention

Want a peek into her ongoing creative evolution? Look no further than her illustrious discography.

By Ellen Von Unwerth
February 20, 2019

Of all the iconic imagery that’s become associated with Rihanna, I often think about the many times she’s walked out of various establishments, bylaws be damned, with a full glass of wine in her hand. I know that there are more profound moments that should come to mind first: her nine Grammys (or 214 total awards), her growing catalogue of bold videography, her uninhibited performances, and her genuine and adorable affinity for her fans. That’s not to mention some other major highlights: becoming the darling of the Met Gala before co-chairing it in 2018, receiving the Harvard Foundation award for Humanitarian of the Year in 2017 and an honourary degree from University of West Indies, getting a street in her hometown neighbourhood named after her, and being appointed an Ambassador of the government of Barbados.

But there’s something about this habit that feels particularly “Rihanna”—it’s badass, glam, and incredibly relatable (to-go wine as accessory! Why didn’t we think of this?). At the same time, while aspirational, it’s totally unrelatable  (“let’s be real, we’re not Rihanna and no one would let us walk away from even a Jack Astor’s with alcohol-filled dishware). But Rihanna’s wine-glass-as-accessory-routine is just one example of her unwavering dedication to following your instincts, regardless of how outrageous they may be.

Since leaving Bridgetown, Barbados to pursue music 15 years ago, Rihanna (born Robyn Rihanna Fenty) has churned out hit after hit, album after album. She’s navigated all kinds of hurdles, each time coming back a force to be reckoned with. Discovered by Evan Rogers in 2003, she was signed to Roc Nation by Jay Z in 2005 and almost immediately become a household name with her breakout hit, “Pon de Replay.” Rihanna was a shy kid who had to learn how to process pain early on. In early interviews, she described enduring debilitating childhood headaches, which she attributed to stress over her father’s addiction to cocaine and alcohol and her parents’ difficult marriage. “I was very shy at one point,” she told InStyle in 2017. “I knew what I was about and what I stood for, but I was not very vocal.”

In the time since her rise to superstardom, Rihanna has persevered through media scrutiny and invasions to her personal life, like the highly-publicized assault by Chris Brown on their way to the Grammys in 2009, lawsuits (the recent $75 million dollar suit against her father for exploiting her name, and the 2012 suits against her accountants for bad bookkeeping that cost her millions), the emotional rollercoaster known as Drake (I feel both tired and nostalgic just reading about the ups and downs of this relationship), and more.

Under those circumstances (and that kind of pressure), even the strongest icons might crumble, but each time, Rihanna came back with reinventions of her artistry—undergoing a process of rebirth with each creative endeavour. She’s phoenix-like: Few of her contemporaries can rival her presence and pervasive endurance, which has nearly surpassed mythic proportions. And in an industry where many bright, young talents rise quickly, only to be extinguished just as fast, Rihanna’s just hitting her full stride in her thirties.

With the release of her first album, Music of the Sun in 2005, fans came to know Rihanna for her catchy, breezy dance songs. It’s her most mainstream sound and look to date, likely because she was under the tutelage and control of a label company and its image experts. As far as starts go, this was a clean break into pop culture: Enjoyable but devoid of her distinctive adventurousness. The album showed her promise as a vocalist, but lacked the spirit of the audacious star we’ve come to know.  

Two years later, Good Girl Gone Bad introduced us to the intrepid experimentation Ri would later make her trademark. Alongside dance hits and famous collaborations (“Umbrella” with Jay Z, “Hate That I Love You” with Ne-Yo, “Rehab” with Justin Timberlake), Loud introduced ballads with darker (although still innocent) tones, like “Rehab’s” exploration of toxic, codependent romantic relationships. While Rihanna experienced fame with singles like “Umbrella” going 8 times platinum, 2009 also brought relentless questioning about Chris Brown. As traumatizing as the start of the year must have been (Rihanna was only 20 at the time), she ended the year off by channeling those experiences into an album that was harder, tougher, and more experimental than any of her previous work.

Reframing the narrative on Rated R, Rihanna refused to let the public position her as a victim, and instead reminded us of her enduring capacity as a survivor. Tracks like “Rude Boy,” “Hard,” “Rock Star” and “Russian Roulette” received heavy radio-play, and the album showcased her vocal and emotional range, further refining her signature blend of vulnerability and toughness.

When Loud came out almost a year later, Rihanna had switched up her style again. This time with bright red hair (inspiring imitation everywhere) and a sound that reminded us why we need her at every party. “It’s aggressive at times, but in a really fun way—just the overall energy of it,” she told Kanye West in a 2010 during a conversation for Interview Magazine. “Even the energy when we were making the album was really expressive and rebellious, but fun.”

If Rated R was her transition to darker, more complex material, Loud showed us that she is the queen of fierce, original dance hits, merging genres as diverse as dancehall and EDM, to R&B and rock.

If Rated R was her transition to darker, more complex material, Loud showed us that she is the queen of fierce, original dance hits, merging genres as diverse as dancehall and EDM, to R&B and rock. The album felt sonically brighter than its predecessor, though, still serving as a reminder that Rihanna has reached icon status. But as the singer told BBC 1 radio host Scott Mills in 2010, she wanted an album filled with “songs that were all Rihanna songs, that nobody else could do.” Loud enabled Rihanna to craft a sound and image that was true to her, and that only she could pull off with the same explosive success.

2010 also marked the start of a slew of collaborations with Toronto’s most prominent crying meme, Drake, like the catchy earworm “What’s My Name” or 2011’s moody and romantic “Take Care.” Loud—the album, the tour, the performers—was filled with colour and celebration. But the album was also marked by the kind of fiery, bright energy that comes after dealing with seriously hard shit.

The following year Talk That Talk took that energy further, with the sumptuous auditory and visual treatment of “Where Have You Been” and the unapologetic, raunchier “Cockiness.” It didn’t matter if a few critics didn’t like the album, Rihanna emphatically showed that she’s here for herself as much as she is for her fans: Her style and production choices here were often unconventional and non-conforming, challenging the music industry’s expectations of “bright, young” female stars and reminding us that she enjoys pushing boundaries. “Cheers (Drink to That),” with its unexpected Avril Lavigne sample, became a weekend requirement and “S&M” was deemed a sexual liberation anthem.

But Anti, maybe unsurprisingly, is my favourite Rihanna album to date. Anti shows Ri’s layers and complexities as an artist, and how the accumulation of her past experiences has shaped her into a brilliant artist. The soulful “Love On the Brain, for example, is a work of maturity and  sensuality. It’s tender but snarly, and compared to “Pon De Replay,” it’s evidence of the hard work Rihanna has put into herself, as she’s grown up in front of the world.  

In the last year, Rihanna has directed her experimentation to other projects. She was a key part of the much-anticipated, all-female reboot of Ocean’s 8, as hacker Nine Ball. She also launched her hugely-successful beauty company Fenty Beauty, then followed it up with her lingerie line FENTY X SAVAGE. Upon release, Fenty Beauty made waves for it’s inclusive range of shades, a decision that marked Rihanna as a leader and formidable force in the beauty industry, and a necessary disruptor. FENTY X SAVAGE, meanwhile, was presented to the world at New York Fashion Week in a vibrant flurry that was unlike most other lingerie fashion lines — the models who wore them triumphing every stage of womanhood. The show felt spiritual and deeply feminine.

Fast forward to today, and the collective love for Rihanna is real and enduring. Most of her fans have been anxiously waiting for her highly anticipated seventh album (she recently posted a pic of herself sweating from all the pressure). There’s another way her fans have been connecting with her. This week the Rihanna birthday challenge meme has everyone googling Rihanna and their date of birth to see what she wore on their birthday (it’s a fun pastime, if you too are caught in the post-Anti, pre-next album purgatory).

Rihanna dominated hit lists for close to fifteen years, cementing her status as a music and fashion icon. She demonstrated what it looks like to call the shots for your own career, whether you’re deciding which stages you want to perform on, which parts of your life you keep to yourself, and what elements of your experiences you choose to unabashedly explore. But her long-lasting appeal also has to do with the ease with which she inhabits various dualities: her warmth and her toughness, the love she shows her fans coupled with an elusiveness that’s hard to pin down. When it comes to enigmas, Rihanna is as dazzling as it gets. And a lot of it has to do with the way Rihanna uses her art to make sense of darkness and confusion, using every experience to learn and consistently shedding her skin to grow a new one. Always moving, always evolving, never complacent.

Happy birthday, Ri. I raise my to-go wine glass to you.  

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