Monica Herrera interviews Rihanna for the cover story of Billboard.
It’s been just six weeks since Rihanna’s wax figure was unveiled, but already it needs a makeover. The creepily life-like sculpture, which assumed its place in Madame Tussaud’s Washington, D.C., outpost on Aug. 31, immortalizes the biker chick-meets-“Blade Runner” look that the pop star rocked this past winter: shoulder-padded blazer, airtight corset, shimmery makeup and a haircut that only she could pull off, part-buzz cut and part-blonde-streaked, sideways swoop.
But Rihanna has moved on since then, now sporting mostly shoulder-length, barrel-curled locks in a shade twice as fluorescent as fire-engine red. Her new look is less severe, more romantic. A day after the figure’s unveiling, a photograph of the Barbadian singer kissing her waxen self appeared on Twitter and made it abundantly clear how much she’s changed.”A lot of people dress like Lady Gaga now. I’ve just stepped off into a whole new look and style,” Rihanna says calmly, phoning in just before a flight to London after a nonstop week of work and play in New York. “The whole shoulder pad thing, and the architectural look, is so sharp-edged and tough. I’m over that. I like floral prints now, which I never liked.
“Trends are boring,” she adds. “It’s boring to see everyone doing the same thing.”
If the 22-year-old’s ever-changing hairstyle doesn’t get that across, then “Loud” (Nov. 16, Island Def Jam Music Group), her fifth studio album and the follow-up to 2009’s “Rated R,” should do the trick. While not all that experimental sonically, the set teems with some of mainstream pop’s most unabashedly dance-driven beats yet. It also boasts joyful hooks, markedly improved vocals and the kind of risqué lyrics that she first articulated so well on 2007’s “Good Girl Gone Bad”-her best-selling album to date at 2.6 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
On the bluntly titled, Stargate-produced and Ester Dean-penned “S&M,” for example, Rihanna proudly claims her vices: “I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it/Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it/Sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me.” On “Cheers,” a twangy bar song that samples Avril Lavigne, she name-checks Jameson Irish whiskey and chants, “Cheers to the freakin’ weekend-drink to that!” “Man Down,” a reggae song featuring rap provocateur Nicki Minaj, turns her into the protagonist of her own murder fantasy. “I took his heart when I pulled out that gun . . . rum-puh-pah-pum, man down . . . oh mama, I just shot a man down.”
With these sorts of lyrics, “Loud” could easily get caught in the believability trap that befell Christina Aguilera’s “Bionic” earlier this year. That’s unlikely, however, because being bad has been good business for Rihanna when she’s done it well. “Rude Boy,” the manhood-touting third single off “Rated R,” also produced by Stargate and co-written by Dean, topped the Billboard Hot 100 for five straight weeks in the spring. “Love the Way You Lie,” her intimate duet for Eminem’s “Recovery” that has been read in the context of both artists’ prior abusive relationships, held the chart’s No. 1 position for seven more weeks.
“Only Girl (In the World),” the lead single for “Loud,” presents Rihanna at her most confident, demanding undivided attention from her lover over impeccably calculated synths and bass. The song is another collaboration with Stargate, and when it reached No. 3 on the Hot 100 two weeks ago, Rihanna officially raised her sum of top 10 hits to 16, the sixth-best total among women in the chart’s 52-year history. She now trails only Madonna with 37 top 10s, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson (27 each), Whitney Houston (23) and Aretha Franklin (17).
“At this point, there’s no denying that she’s more than a cool voice, a pretty face and a hot style,” says Stargate’s Tor Erik Hermansen, who with Mikkel Storleer Eriksen make up the Norwegian duo. “She has a swagger which is unbelievable.”
Hermansen says Rihanna pinpointed “Only Girl” as her lead single “the minute she heard the song. She picks and chooses everything, which to me is crucial. And she has good taste.”
Not a bad kickoff for an album clearly meant to mark a new chapter in Rihanna’s life and career. “Rated R,” her first release after her February 2009 assault at the hands of then-boyfriend Chris Brown, has sold 998,000 copies, according to SoundScan, her lowest amount since her 2005 debut, “Music of the Sun” (594,000). The edginess of “Loud” doesn’t feel nearly as forced as that of its predecessor, whose other three singles, the despairing “Russian Roulette,” the street cred-appealing “Hard” and the Slash-featuring “Rockstar 101,” all stalled on the charts.
“Let me not kid you — this album is as personal to me as it is to Rihanna,” says Island Def Jam Music Group (IDJMG) chairman/CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who outlines the strengths of “Loud” after blasting its nine confirmed tracks (the album is still being tweaked) through the enormous speakers in his equally enormous New York office. As he does this, Reid sings along with nearly every line, punctuating the most memorable ones with finger points and fist pumps, and giving himself a bear hug when Rihanna’s voice coos, “Hold me like a pillow,” on “Only Girl.”
“This is the truest Rihanna album yet because it sounds the most like her first one,” Reid continues. “[2005 debut single] ‘Pon De Replay,’ that was obviously Rihanna at her purest, with that Caribbean-flavored dance-pop music. After that, she went in many different directions only to find herself right back where she really started. Though I think the songs are much better now. Her growth as a vocalist is really evident.”
While “Loud” is a crucial album for Rihanna in the wake of lower-than-usual sales for “Rated R,” Reid says the latter album was really her most pivotal. “The last one, to us, that was the one. She was brave. She was speaking what she felt at that moment, and it didn’t matter who came with a song that we thought was a hit. Every song had to tell the story she wanted to tell. ‘Loud’ is the album where she doesn’t have a point to prove. She can just have fun and be Rihanna.”
The singer wholeheartedly agrees. ” ‘Rated R’ showed that I wasn’t a shallow artist,” she says. “I have some depth. There was definitely some growth, going through that dark moment in my life.”
Rihanna never refers to her relationship with Brown in specifics and says she “definitely” prefers to let “Love the Way You Lie” speak for itself, which of course is made easier by the fact that it’s not on her own album. “It’s kind of like the closing to that chapter, and now we’re in a new stage,” she says.
“What happened in her personal life, the way she handled it and worked through it, is truly amazing,” Hermansen says. “As tragic as that was, just to see how she grew as a person and an artist, I think the whole world looked at that and said, ‘OK, this girl is no joke.’ ”
Turn on just about any mainstream top 40, rhythmic or urban radio station, and it’s all but guaranteed to have had Rihanna in heavy rotation for half a decade. It’s the first of those formats, however, where she’s had the most success. Since “Pon De Replay,” Rihanna has had 21 entries on Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 chart, and with six No. 1s, she’s in a four-way tie (with Beyoncé, Mariah Carey and Lady Gaga) for the most chart-toppers in its 18-year history.
This isn’t an accomplishment that her label takes lightly, though Reid believes there’s a catch. “She’s clearly multiformat, but the challenge is, which format is hers? As a recording artist, you can have a hit and be a visitor to each format, but to have true artistic success you have to own it. I think she owns rhythm and top 40, but we do suffer a little because we don’t have urban on lock. When you have a black girl from the islands, you want to have urban on lock. So one of the goals that we had was to not force that, but to try and make records we thought were hits and where she could shine.”
“The challenge is complicated when you’re making music that sonically appeals to a dance/top 40 audience,” WQHT (Hot 97) New York PD Ebro Darden says. “When Rihanna makes music that fits the appeal of hip-hop, we play it.”
Julie Pilat, assistant PD/music director for KIIS-FM Los Angeles, says that Rihanna’s multiformat appeal “seems like more of a strength than a weakness,” adding that the star is “welcomed with open arms wherever she goes.”
“I wanted songs that only I can do, not generic songs that everyone else could sing,” Rihanna says. Her collaborations with Dean went a long way in this regard, no doubt in part because both are young, successful female pop hitmakers of color in a heavily male-dominated field.
Dean, who specializes in rhythmic pop songs with a naughty streak (her most recent work includes Usher’s “Hot Toddy,” Katy Perry’s “Peacock” and “Firework,” and Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight”), co-wrote “S&M,” “Fading Away” and “What’s My Name,” which will be the second single off “Loud.” She says Rihanna’s biggest strength is that “she doesn’t try to sound like you; she sounds like herself. She’s not in there trying to figure out how she can beat you singing your song. She goes in there and says, ‘I’m going to sing this song because I fucking love it.’ ”
“She really captured me, everything I would say and how I would say it,” Rihanna says of Dean. “Some people get it halfway right. She just gets it and knows exactly what you want to hear.”
Rihanna may not do much of her own songwriting, but by all accounts she was more active than ever in guiding the creative choices for “Loud.” Writing camps took place several months ago in Los Angeles and Miami, where Rihanna, who nearly always uses “we” when discussing the making of her album, says about 100 writers and producers were invited to collaborate and craft songs for consideration. “We gave them guidelines and a bunch of topics,” she says. “We’d have 10 writers in one room and five writers in another room and put them with one producer, then split the group up and put them with another producer.”
“Obviously those are extreme conditions to create something under,” Hermansen says, “but we enjoyed the urgency of the whole project.”
For her recent collaboration with Drake, a remix of “What’s My Name” that will appear on “Loud” as a bonus track, Rihanna personally presented the track to the Canadian MC. “She played the record to Drake backstage somewhere to try to get him on a verse,” Hermansen says. “She’s calling me up saying, ‘Where are the files?’ That’s one thing you don’t hear often from artists on her level.”
“Drake is the hottest rapper out right now,” Rihanna says, “and we’ve always been trying to work together. He’s the only person I thought could really understand the melody of the song, and the minute he heard it he said, ‘I know exactly what I’m going to do. I love it.’ And he did it like three days later.”
Much of the actual recording was done while Rihanna was on the road for her Last Girl on Earth tour, which kicked off in April in Europe and wrapped in August in the United States. (It will resume early next year in Australia.)
DIRECT TO FAN
Rihanna is the first to admit that making a personal connection with her fans hasn’t been her strong suit up to now. “I just felt like there was this big distance with us,” she says. “You know, they love me, they love how I dress and they move to my music, but they don’t really know who I am.”
That started to change in late August when Rihanna took over her Twitter account, which before had only been used to issue formal announcements. “No more corny label tweets!” she declared, and soon she was going even more direct, announcing the title of her new album in a live chat on fan site RihannaDaily.com. “I just got on there and started talking. Some of them didn’t believe that it was me, like, ‘Oh, fake Rihanna,’ ” she says of the first time she visited the chat. “So I got my best friend to Facebook RihannaDaily so they knew it was really me.”
Rihanna utilized Twitter and Facebook to debut her album cover at the end of September, posting partial images of the artwork on the social networks, then directing fans to her official website RihannaNow.com for the full reveal.
“Fan engagement is a huge driver for us,” IDJMG senior director of marketing Gabriela Schwartz says. “We had a lot of fun with our digital rollout for ‘Rated R,’ which was more about intrigue, countdowns, teasers and building anticipation. This is ‘Loud’ and it’s inclusive, it’s in your face and immediate, which is exactly what the album represents.”
Though most of the “Loud” campaign’s key elements have yet to be finalized, Schwartz says a viral campaign to search for the “loudest fan in the world” will launch in the next couple of weeks, and on Oct. 4 in London, Rihanna spent a reported eight hours at the trendy retail chain Topshop’s flagship store, styling several fans and contest winners in outfits of her choosing.
Another element of the campaign involves a partnership with Doritos, although details are still under wraps after a curious-looking video for “Who’s That Chick,” a David Guetta-produced track, leaked online. Neither Schwartz nor a Doritos representative would comment on the leak or what the campaign entails, though the latter did say an announcement was coming soon and mentioned the website DoritosLateNight.com, which displays a video of Rihanna behind the scenes and teases an “interactive video” next to a still image from the leaked clip.
As for other high-profile looks, Rihanna is booked to perform on ABC’s “Good Morning America” fall concert series Nov. 17, the day after “Loud” streets, and on the Halloween episode of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
For the first time, Rihanna is also delving into other sectors of the industry. She’ll launch her first fragrance, titled Reb’l Fleur (a play on words from a tattoo on her neck that reads “rebelle fleur”) next spring, and she’s currently filming scenes for “Battleship,” an action movie directed by Peter Berg.
“My favorite part has been shooting in the ocean,” Rihanna gushes, sounding her most excited. “We were going at top speed, and I had to shoot this really badass weapon off the front of the boat. There was gunpowder all in my mouth by the time it finished.”
Rihanna has a stuntwoman for her more daring scenes, but per usual, she’s more likely to take charge. “They always want me to sit down when the dangerous stuff happens, but I am a control freak,” Rihanna says. “So I said, ‘No.’ She doesn’t do it like I would do it.”