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The musical code of life, delivered by a voice from “the left side of an island,” has proven to statistically and culturally to be one of the most successful pop icon story arcs. Rihanna’s strategy of releasing a new album every year for four Novembers (eventually nicknamed RIHvember)n not only mirrored the values of the industry’s truest hustlers; it also offered a diverse array of records and distinct eras from one superstar, each forming lives of their own. Over time that would show that going the extra mile—especially in a pop landscape that tries its best to downplay greatness—and applying hardwork will pay off in the history books and public conscience.
Released on November 20, 2009, Rated R became the first of the eras. It’s thematically tailored as a noir horror film. At the age of 21, Rihanna chose not to run away from the headlines but battle them head-on through personally-mused art and a confrontational public image. She becomes the heroine of a darker phase than the PG-13 era of Music of the Sun, A Girl Like Me, and _Good Girl Gone Bad—and consequently bearing the brunt of criticisms for her discography gradual rising up the MPAA rating scale.
The fourth studio album would become her first to receive a parental advisory sticker. Despite the restriction label, not playing it safe with Rated R (and a sheen transparency in the presence of interviewers such as Diane Sawyer and Touré) asserted that Rihanna was adept for the war of selling her album. While both mentioned journalists seized the opportunity to ask tough questions about domestic violence and her situation, they also took time out to discuss Rated R’s concept and artistic vision.
At the start of Fuse Network’s On The Run special hosted by Touré, Rihanna confesses, “I never wanted to be a celebrity, I wanted to be a musician.” It’s a confession that we’ve heard before in the monologue bridge of GGGB’s “Question Existing.” Rated R immediately became Rihanna’s coming-of-age to her celebrity status and cultural influence to global music and creatives.
Touré mentions the evolutionary climb up the MPAA ratings ladder with Rihanna albums before asking “where can you go after [growling] Rated R?” After finding the humor in that question, Rihanna mentioned how “every album for me has been a natural step in my growth.” It’s at this moment that Rihanna lays out what had been her strategic game plan since Music of the Sun. She also noted that every album and its respective era gets better than the previous one, that the 17-year-old Rihanna starring in “Pon de Replay” would not be the same as the 21-year-old Robyn Fenty thrilling spectators with a heartbeating, high speed chase in “Russian Roulette.”
Then, Touré and Rihanna enter the territory of how Rated R wasn’t meant to capture hits but rather redefine her lyricism and ear for music. The co-penning lyricist confessed she wanted an album full of “real music,” but confidently predicted that it would still manage hit success on the charts. She also described how taking a break from recording her last album started to become a maddening experience, as she turned into a “delinquent” with “cabin fever.” Robyn Rihanna Fenty had new life and worldly experiences to reflect on wax.
There’s an earnest vision musically executed on Rated R starting with a welcoming, thunderstepping-Frankenstein movie opener entitled “Mad House” and closing with the 90s guitar and lighter swaying, arena ballad “The Last Song.” Musically, Rihanna propels herself into more of an iconic status, jumping into sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll’s influence on R&B, hip-hop, and pop. Visually, that’s crisply reflected in the black and grayscaled album art of Rated R, shot by Ellen Von Unwerth, the photographer of Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope, Christina Aguilera’s Back To Basics, and Britney Spear’s Blackout.
“Hard” is a thrash metal collision featuring Jeezy rapping about “a kilo,” attending “an all-white party wearing all black” and shouting out “Obama dem.” Jeezy’s style and material possessions matches the “all-black on, blacked-out shades, blacked-out Maybach” Rihanna gloats about. She’s about to “rock this shit like fashion” and sees “my runway never look so clear” to soldier on and envision herself as “the hottest bitch in heels right here.”
Musically, Rihanna figured that revisits to nostalgic cadences of rock and her then-label’s (Def Jam) origins of golden age hip-hop would not be enough, and she could challenge her sound even further. A previous feature on JAY-Z’s Blueprint III hit “Run This Town” alongside Kanye West alsoinstilled a new musical spirit. The addition of the already festering dubstep wave to an ECG-heart monitoring, Rihanna Navy-monikering “G4L”—which flips the brief flatline-ending of “Russian Roulette” into 9mm pistol-toting revenge plot—backboned this, as did “Wait Your Turn” and “Rockstar 101”.
Rated R’s four rap-sung-paired-with-dubstep tracks promised a “Rihanna Reign that just won’t let up” from “such a phuckin’ lady” who was “gangsta 4 life” and “big shit talker [that] never played the victim.” This attitude emotes through the vulnerability of Rated R’s soft rock ballads, as she comes to some conclusions about her foolish mistakes in young love. “That he’s here means he’s never lost” in “Russian Roulette” barely tipped the surface with “even though Katy told me that this would be nothing but a waste of time / And she was right” in the emo-crying “Stupid In Love.”
That vulnerability burns on “Fire Bomb,” a deep cut which, in essence, would prequel the LOUD era’s two-part “Love The Way You Lie” saga with Eminem. That vulnerability drags over an organ and morbid ramba on an “opened up ‘Cold Case Love,’” where Rihanna regretfully sings out “should’ve investigated, but love’s blinded eyes couldn’t see.” “Photographs” hits a loungey, psychedelic techno trip, and “Te Amo” is a smoldering tango that particularly highlights the songstress’ knack for stressed phonetic vocal performances.
Out of the entire album’s tracklist, the one song that reached the No. 1 spot of the Billboard Hot 100 would inspire Rihanna to reinvent her brand of pop music once again. “Rude Boy” stood out as a diamond in the rough as it was defiantly boisterous, a ticking explosion of dancehall rooted in raggamuffin-styled singjaying. In a vividly colorful music video—which sharply contrasted the graininess of Rated R’s other visuals—we witness a more playful and goofy side to her humor and sexual confidence.
This moment would give LOUD the legs it would need to walk a year later, on November 15, 2010. That day, Rihanna appeared on BET’s 106 & Park to promote her fifth album. By that point the public had been adjusted to her bold red hairdos—from the music video of “Love The Way You Lie” during the summer to the album cover centered on rosy red that popped off the booklet. And a lot was going on at the very start as Rocsi Diaz kept noting.
“What’s My Name”—the dancehall and ska second single featuring Drake—impressively upstaged “Only Girl (In The World)”—the Eurohouse meets feminist-raving anthem. Upstaging, only meaning that the former hit the No. 1 spot a week before the latter would. She would perform both those bops at the American Music Awards that weekend in an iconic melody celebrating Bajan festiveness.
When asked by Diaz to describe the Rihanna Navy, Rihanna gave the following speech with enthused stans cheering her on: “My fans are very enthusiastic, they get really excited, and they’re not afraid of sharing their excitement with the world and I love that they’re like me in a way because they’re LOUD. They’re Unapologetic. They don’t really care who doesn’t agree with them. If they love something they’re really passionate about it.”
Hearing the bubblegum and confectionary tracklist, LOUD signaled to the Navy that Rihanna was in a happier space, comfortable enough to embrace the hit factory pop she slightly dismissed during her Touré interview. The third single, “S&M,” alchemised European trance with bondage, with Rihanna’s imaginative spin on Playboy-noir meets pink latex. The videos of the LOUD era began to expose how pop art aesthetics factored into LOUD’s artpop soundscape and cohesion, the central color of red offering LOUD’s central synesthesia throughline.
And through her musically documented struggles with romance, LOUD manages to keep the hurt on an upbeat and urgent note. In fact, the urgency comes from sirens such as the ones in “Raining Men” or “Man Down,” two singles that found respective cult followings of different kind. While the former song rejects the advances of a men at the bar, the latter’s video shows murder taking place after a rape at a bar. Even when she deceptively sounds upbeat, Rihanna’s still storytelling seriously dark subject matters on LOUD.
“Complicated” and “Fading” accented booming belting in order to display the tone of the era. Rihanna executes this on many alternative beats. “Complicated” used Euro post-disco to call out uncertainty in a lover, while “Fading” emphasized a chamber pop sample of Enya’s “One By One” to severe ties with an ex. Through a louder vocal delivery, we notice Rihanna’s signature technique of emphasized vowels during hooks “oh na na” and “fa-ay-ay-ding.”
As another single, “California King Bed” addressed “more than distance between” lovers, with the help of acoustic country-pop that merges into an electric guitar base Rihanna loves. “Skin” on the opposite hand creeps slowly like Prince’s “Darling Nikki” (a song she covered during the LOUD Tour), but gets intenser in sexual commands as the volume of the guitar increases. It’s a finesse of orgasmic R&B, one again placing Rihanna in charge of her desires.
Capping off LOUD as the final single of the era, “Cheers (Drink To That)” promotes a music video of archival LOUD Tour and behind-the-scenes footage. The loudest component of this song is not Rihanna drunkenly oding “don’t let the bastards get you down,” or Irish pubmen singing the chorus over laughter and Jameson; it’s Avril Lavigne’s oft-yodelling “ee yeah yeah” from “With You,” an emo-punk ballad about falling in love with a stranger “on a damn cold night.” Released on August 2, 2011—263 days after LOUD’s debut—”Cheers” not only served as a final toast to a dominating pop era, but also marked as one of the key send offs to millennium-pop music.
While she was in the midst of grossing $90 million on tour, Rihanna’s sixth studio album, Talk That Talk, arrived on November 18, 2011. Those who attended the LOUD Tour that same night in the LG Arena of Birmingham, England experienced “We Found Love” addition to the setlist. The UK immediately launched “We Found Love” at the top of their charts, while America took five weeks. The song managed to clock in a No. 7 debut on the US Hot Digital Songs chart with only four Nielsen tracking days. It’s global smash factor had been undeniable, but the structuring of Talk That Talk is what makes the era standout.
Only 37 minutes long in the standard edition and 49 in the deluxe, Talk That Talk worked as a studio album that played as an EP or mixtape. What was meant to be a deluxe edition to LOUD as a celebration, came a quick victory speech on wax. Just like the singer who fronts it, the tracklist sequencing takes on an attitude of its own with interlude length tracks like “Cockiness (Love It)” and “Birthday Cake.” Through its cinematography, still images and lyricism, Talk That Talk delivers the glamorous posh of Gossip Girl meeting the British exploit of Skins.
The R-rated and TV-MA days of Rated R and LOUD had been outgrown to the NC-17 category. In order to authentically talk her talk, Rihanna dances with her native Bajan sound on “You Da One” simultaneously spelling an online language for her stan base. The Clockwork Orange-inspired music video revolves around newspaper font and print, and the inhalation of joints.
Rihanna already toyed with mocking headlines and tabloids on “S&M,” but the newspaper print on the Talk That Talk packaging is under Rihanna’s guise, the key phrase being “Love Me.” Through her stronger eye for visuals, “We Found Love” set a new award-winning, cinematic standard. With the LOUD Tour ending on December 22, the year 2012 meant a jam-packed TV schedule of new live singles to promote around the world.
Performing “We Found Love” for both the Grammys and the Brits, we see Rihanna’s fascination with contrasting her dark side with her light side based on their respective stage settings and costuming. By May, she was circulating three singles as evident by her “pussy pat” induced, V12 humming performance of “Birthday Cake” on Saturday Night Live followed by “Talk That Talk” and an Arabian choreographed routine matching the trippy images of “Where Have You Been.” On the American Idol finally she brought that performance to a ritual of Rihanna hieroglyphics.
Through the deep cuts and singles, we witness another cohesively-themed era, as clearly spelled out by “suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion,” one of modern pop’s first examples of “big dick energy.” From a behind-the -cenes clip of Rihanna selecting an album cover for Talk That Talk, she opts for the self-proclaimed “unpretty” one of her in heavy black eyeliner, red lipstick, and her tongue sticking out, over the black-and-white portrait of her exhaling smoke. She swears on how big her balls are when making the executive decision of the former covering standard editions and the latter deluxe.
On the standard, she heals from bad love by forgiving and letting go. She’s unafraid to confess over folk rhythm “We All Want Love.” As with most of the tracks on Talk That Talk, clapping drives the audio’s playtime forward. Instead of shutting up and driving as she suggested in GGGB, Rihanna uses her voice as an engine to get through the a sober-avoidant sample of the xx’s “Intro” on “Drunk on Love.” “Roc Me Out” ties back into “Rude Boy,” this time revving up the tempo with a bit of musical festival rowdiness. “Watch N’ Learn” she gives an oral instruction. It’s all over by the aptly titled “Farewell” which closes this production in a similar fashion to “The Last Song.”
On the deluxe edition, “Red Lipstick” finds Rihanna rapping and singing over Chase and Status’ “Saxon.” The role reversal lyrics of this record continue on a central theme of the phallic existence in the human psyche and how we communicate. “Do Ya Thang” practically expresses, ‘I see your perspective; do you? I know still love me.’ “Fool In Love” openly sees the error of that thinking or how that sudden disposition can keep her wary of her present relationship.
When November 20, 2012 arrived and Rihanna was autographing CDs at Best Buy in Times Square for her seventh album, Unapologetic, those who had not endured the four year musical marathon— only peeping in for the major tidbits—were in for a few rude awakenings. As she hinted at the 106 & Park audience two years earlier, there would be an era that would be giving doses of those rude awakenings; the first being the album art which features a topless Rihanna taking a portrait. There are various internet searches and trending terms written in her body in silver Sharpie—her nipple covered by black permanent marker to honor “Censored.” Despite that, it still reads as the Unapologetic title. The origins of #R8 and #R9 are seen with #R7. A drawing of a diamond sits over the Roc and there’s a shout-out to the #Navy.
The second rude awakening would actually be on of her most pleasantly iconic moments: the release of “Diamonds” as a single. Dazzling with the poetics of Sia’s songwriting, “Diamonds” perfectly captures the essence of a swan story in pop music. Albeit Rihanna is singing about beautiful soulmates who “shine bright like a diamond,” her vocal delivery and the musical growth she uses to get to this point is what makes the moment shine brighter.
There were a lot of responses contained in Unapologetic. “Nobody’s Business” featured Chris Brown, as did the extended “Birthday Cake (Remix).” On the LP, there’s a sense of conflict with in ones self while combating the public image. The first part running from “Phresh Out The Runway” to “Pour It Up” is about amassing an empire, where she’d acknowledge her records being “so hood but so phuckin pop.”
By then, we hit the Rihanna formula. She makes up with her male antagonist and we witness the adventure they embark on. At this stage of Unapologetic, the trap&B ballad “Loveeeeeee Song” and the “Pony” grinding “Jump.” Sonically, the album has ramped up Rihanna’s affinity for clapping and raving—as if the album took a pill of E suggested on “Numb” or chugged a rum and Red Bull energy drink. “Right Now,” a David Guetta feature following 2010’s “Who’s Dat Chick,” continues that vibe, as does the closer “Lost In Paradise.”
Unapologetic is one of the rare instances where Rihanna chooses not to pull the trigger on this four-album Marilyn Monroe-and-James Dean love story as suggested in the thrilling chase of “Mother Mary/Love Without Tragedy.” She’s confused how she can feel both satisfaction in life but an unexplainable sadness in “What Now.” She wants for the love to “Stay,” but realizes that it’s been murdered and failed again on “No Love Allowed.”
In their statistical round-ups, the leading archival collective for the Navy, Fenty Stats, tweeted a magazine quote from her manager Jay Brown. He wasn’t worried about Unapologetic being the first of her seven albums to go No. 1 on the Billboard 200. He knew that Rihanna’s “broken every other record out there.” That wasn’t the concern, as the albums would play out the success for themselves over time. What her team had successfully been planning for with the release of Unapologetic was shifting Rihanna’s public image from a culture figure that we “saw on the television” (“Half of Me”) into a living icon able to spread her creative impact and the lessons learned from RIHvember to all her future endeavors.
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