By Jon Reyes
Ten years ago, “Umbrella” barreled into our lives with it’s repetitive and extremely contagious “eh-eh-eh” hook. The gigantic pop song with a heart was more than just a massive hit that gave Rihanna chart and pop star credence. It was the beginning of the Rihanna much of the world would fall in love with, and since the release of the hit single ten years ago on March 29th, 2007, something began to click for the Bajan singer. For everything the single did for Rihanna’s career, “Umbrella” took with it the careers of the songwriters and the people behind the scenes.
Talking about “Umbrella” goes hand-in-hand with talking about Ri-Ri’s fashion proclivities. Her propensity for garb aesthetics took center stage during the promotional tour for the third album, Good Girl Gone Bad, which kicks off with “Umbrella.” Maybe it was the asymmetrical bob haircut or maybe it was the newly hired stylists, but the fact remains, this is the version of Rihanna that evolved into the pop culture icon that’s etched her pop music legacy. Back then it didn’t always seem natural, though. An appearance on The View comes to mind where her explanation for her newly higher-end image had to do with wearing something solely on how she feels. That particular morning she “felt like big puffy sleeves” (see below).
Clunky as the image shift was, it marked a beginning for the singer. The pop record led by synths and amassed with guitars during its chorus began to break records as soon as it was released. In the United Kingdom, it became one of the most-played songs of the decade. It also spent ten weeks at #1. In the U.S., it spent seven weeks in the top spot and broke digital download records at a time when the iTunes music download began to take its place in pop culture.
The origin story of the song is widely known. Originally, The-Dream and Tricky Stewart wrote the single with Britney Spears in mind. After her record label turned it down, the songwriting team thought it could go to Mary J. Blige. When that fell through, it got into Rihanna’s hands, and the rest is history. It worked out for them though.
The songwriters were a team who’d already gotten some traction with Britney Spears’s 2003 single “Me Against the Music” and Tricky had already seen success with Mya’s 2000 hit “Case of the Ex.” It wasn’t until “Umbrella” that the two struck gold. Also, Tricky Stewart’s cousin, Kuk Harrell, was now behind the scenes as a vocal producer. A winning combination was beginning to take form.
The concept of the song was universal – the best for a pop song. The lyrics were a devotional declaration that time, money, or distance wouldn’t get in the way of love. It worked on different levels even as a dedication to your best friend. At some point, it was said to have been written for the American troops in Iraq.
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The songwriters had the mainstream stage again in a way songwriters before hadn’t. The-Dream, Tricky, and Kuk Hurrell rode the wave pretty far. Post-“Umbrella” gigs included writing for Beyoncé, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Chris Brown, Usher and Mary J. Blige, among others. Plus, Harrell has vocally produced all of Rihanna’s albums since then and in case a reminder is needed, this is the team behind Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).”
Something interesting began to happen: the art of songwriting itself began to be publicly discussed when it came to the career of talented and charismatic interpreters. At this point, Rihanna began to establish herself as a good one. After Good Girl Gone Bad, Rihanna’s record label began to see the potential in having tailor-made songs for the singer. So, for her subsequent albums, “song camps” became the norm where writers and producers would be flown in by the label and housed in studios for days.
Once “Umbrella” was recorded, pressed, and sent out to the world, Jay Z—who at the time was heading Island Def Jam—was bold enough to tell GIANT magazine that he thought RiRi was the black Madonna. It was an interesting admission considering the mogul’s initial impression of the singer’s first single.
When Jay Z first heard “Pon De Replay,” he told MTV.com, “I was like, that song is too big for her. When a song is that big, it’s hard [for a new artist] to come back from. I don’t sign songs. I sign artists. Some people chase the hot song for a minute. I want to sign an artist based on a swagger, the level of talent, the writing. I was a little reluctant.” Of course, things changed when Jay met her in person and saw first-hand the potential the singer had.
Nurturing talent is a rapper’s dream. A sign of success is the ability to give others a chance for a come-up. Even with years as mogul under his belt, Jay Z wasn’t any different when it came to giving others the spotlight. At the end of 2007, Jay Z decided not to renew his contract with the record label and went on to something bigger; his tenure at Island Def Jam gave the mogul the final boost to his legacy outside of the rap world: Roc Nation. In 2008, Jay Z established the entertainment company, which now has live concert, record label, sports management, and music management departments. It’s not to say that it happened only because of Rihanna, but there was something kismet about giving the world a record-breaking artist and moving on to try to replicate it on a massive scale.
Even in it all its glory “Umbrella” isn’t peak-Rihanna. Take her 2007 MTV VMA performance (see above), where there’s a stark difference from the performer we know today who’s confident and walks around a stage commanding it. It wasn’t yet Rihanna. It was what the world wanted Rihanna to be at the moment – prim, proper, and choreographed. Yet, there was a glimmer of ambition that only time can point us towards.
Up until that moment, Rihanna was an underdog plagued by commentary about her “limited vocals” and endless comparisons to Beyoncé and their “similar” looks. Even Jay Z, who had just released the critically acclaimed but lukewarm selling American Gangster was beginning to get restless behind the limited desk of a record label and the mic as a rapper. For the songwriting team of “Umbrella,” who already had a great pop record on their hands, they needed an artist willing and able to take it to the next level.
For Rihanna, it was more than just getting a bob-cut and singing a good record; it was about seizing an opportunity. Thanks to “Umbrella,” the Bajan more than proved herself. Today, she’s a chart monster with 14 number-one singles that surpassed Elvis Presley as the best-selling solo artist of all time. Not bad for someone who wasn’t big enough for “Pon De Replay.”
Revisit the hit song below.
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