GG‘s Number Ones column reviews every Billboard Hot 100 #1 single of the last 10 years.
On February 8, 2009, Rihanna was savagely beaten by boyfriend Chris Brown. After an argument in Brown’s car escalated, he attacked. Punching, scratching, and biting, Brown repeatedly hit his 20-year-old girlfriend in the face. By Rihanna’s later account, all she could think was, “When is it going to stop?”
With eyes blackened and lacerations across her face, Rihanna was quickly admitted to a nearby hospital. When news of the incident went public, tabloid newspapers were swept into a frenzy. Overnight, the Barbados-born pop star became the most famous victim of domestic abuse the world had ever known.
The fallout from the attack threw Rihanna into a funk. She fell into a period of frustration and self-doubt. After witnessing her mother physically abused by her father as a child she had sworn it would never happen to her. And yet it had. Shortly after the assault, Rihanna parted ways with Brown. She spent most of her time in isolation, laying around her house. She then grew restless. She rang her management. It was time for another album.
Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born on February 20, 1988. She grew up in Barbados. Forming the intention to become a pop star at age 6, Fenty was exposed to an eclectic mix of early musical influences including Caribbean dancehall hits, US hip hop, chart pop, and R&B. She was discovered by two American record executives who holidayed on the island in 2004.
At age 16 she relocated to New York. With an early demo finding favour with Jay Z she signed to record label Def Jam. Her first hit single, the dancehall-inspired ‘Pon de Replay’, arrived in 2005. It was an instant success, topping the charts in 15 countries.
The same year Rihanna released her debut album Music of the Sun. A Girl Like Me followed in 2006. As her fame grew, Rihanna became increasingly dissatisfied with the clean, innocent, and altogether artificial image the music industry expected her to project. “I wasn’t 100 percent or even 75 percent in control of my image or my sound,” she would later share.
Rihanna believed this ‘perfect’ image would never get her noticed. “I didn’t want to be like all the other artists,” she once recounted to Bang Showbiz. “I wanted to stand out. And the only way I could do that was by taking charge of my image and my sound.”
With her third album, Good Girl Gone Bad in 2007, Rihanna ditched the innocent and girlish pop-star image. Seizing creative control of her musical direction with singles like ‘Umbrella‘, She revealed a stronger, confident, and more aggressive side. From this point onward, she took a more active role in defining her public persona, Rihanna chose what she wore, and more frequently spoke her mind. Rihanna began to present herself as the woman she really was.
Rihanna was slowly taking control. Her beauty and fashionable edge were, increasingly, brought to the fore. As was her playful attitude and humour. There was also a darker side to the pop star, something sensual, and edgier. “I love to combine femininity with a kind of extreme masculine edge,” Rihanna shared with Kanye West during a conversation for Interview Magazine. With these words, she may have said it best.
The album that followed Chris Brown’s assault, Rated R saw Rihanna take an unprecedented level of creative control. In her view, there was no way she could go on singing sunny pop tunes. Rated R was a response to her abuse. A reflection of where her mind was at. Rihanna channelled everything she had felt and wanted to say in the eight months following her assault into the album’s 13 songs.
An overriding sense of confidence, pain, sensuality, power, playfulness, and passion colours her material. “Every time we put out music,” Rihanna informed Interview Magazine, “the whole process reflects whatever mood I’m in at that time. Whatever I’m feeling, whatever I’m going through, whatever mood I’m in . . . When I’m feeling like dancing or clubbing, then it will be reflected in the music. If I’m feeling dark and vulnerable, then it will reflect in the music, too.”
The music was edgier. Rihanna and her producers cultivated a sparser, darker, and gloomier feel. “[The music] seemed aggressive,” she told GQ, “but it was more defensive. It was like putting up a guard wall, this tough image that people couldn’t get past, to me.”
Recording Rude Boy
Of all Rated R‘s material, it was ‘Rude Boy’ which captured the public’s imagination the most. Rihanna’s ‘Rude Boy’ is about a woman taking charge, taking control of a relationship. Boil the song down to its essence and that is what it is. Reduce almost anything Rihanna did from this point onward down to its essence and this is what you get.
The song came at the end of the Rated R sessions. In fact, Rihanna and her production team were close to giving up. “I was so tired,” she would late recount, “but I’m glad that I stayed, because ‘Rude Boy’ became the biggest song off that album and stayed at #1 for five weeks straight.”
The title ‘Rude Boy’ is based on slang popular in the Caribbean sea. A rude boy can refer to a young, Black male who is aggressive and a social dropout. He might be a gangster, a “badman” or simply someone who is cool. A rude boy may be lawless but within this single’s fantasy, Rihanna is a law unto herself, easily bringing her rude boy into submission.
Rude Boy was Rebellious
‘Rude Boy’ was Rihanna’s answer to the terrifying helplessness of abuse. The single reflected Rihanna’s confidence to be herself. Her independent and rebellious streak continued to break loose.
With ‘Rude Boy’ Rihanna was no longer making the music she thought the public wanted but the kind she herself wanted to make. Rihanna took risks and they started paying off. She broke free of a cliche to became one of the first true and authentic pop stars of her generation. Elevating the genre itself, alongside contemporaries like Beyoncé, she cast aside pop’s longstanding fantasy of girl-like innocence and became a figure of aspiration and empowerment.
Here Rihanna teases her male lover as to whether they can satisfy her sexually. Rihanna flirts with danger. This is not simply any lover. “[‘Rude Boy’] is about the kind of street, bad boy that girls sometimes like,” she shared. “There’s a danger and a swagger there.” Rihanna dispels myths of male power and potency with a laugh. All men, she hints, have their weaknesses. And with most of them, she just happens to know it’s sex.
‘Rude Boy’ Shoots to the Top
With ‘Rude Boy’ Rihanna’s continued to test her limits. Her boldness was rewarded. Released on February 19, 2010, ‘Rude Boy’ climbed all the way to #1 on the US Billboard 100. The 5 times platinum single would be her sixth chart-topper. (At the time of writing she has since had another 8).
The success of the song came as a surprise “It’s so exciting,” Rihanna informed Entertainment Weekly in 2010. “I can’t believe ‘Rude Boy’ of all songs was the biggest song on this album. That’s the one that I really wrote the most on.”
‘Rude Boy’ remains a popular feature of Rihanna’s live set. Since its 2009 release, she has performed it 351 times in concert. This places it the fourth most performed song of all time after ‘Unfaithful’ at number three, ‘Hate That I Love You‘ at number two, and ‘Umbrella’, of course, at number one.
Ideas and inspiration come from experience. Living her life in no half-measure, Rihanna has a vaster store than most. Plucked from nowhere, she chose not to stay content with the roles assigned to her as a woman and a pop star. As her career progressed she began to take risks and survived setbacks others would never recover from. While Chris Brown’s traumatic beating could have derailed her she instead chose to harness its destructive energies to create an album. Instead of languishing in the grey throes of depression, Rihanna walked back into a studio to get in touch with her greatest passion.
The music which resulted came wrapped in the seductive energy that characterises Rihanna’s mid-to-late career. Rated R showcases Rihanna’s ability to put more of herself into a pop song than ever before. It struck a chord. The more of herself she chose to express, the better her material became. Rihanna began to say things other women were thinking but would never say in public. The archetype of the modern hero, she did the things others lacked the confidence to do. And in the wake of her massive success lay the suggestion that others could do so too.
There is an element of fantasy to this, Rihanna is after all human. As she has often stated she has a vulnerable side, it is just not one she shows in public. Brown’s assault still rattled her, even months after the event. “The physical pain comes and it goes,” she later reflected on Brown’s attack. “The bruises fade away.” It was the lingering emotional scars, she contended, that hurt the most.
The 600 Million Dollar Woman
As Rihanna’s career moved forward her confident alter ego seemed to manifest itself into reality. Her obscure origins, an abusive father, Chris Brown, the exploitive nature of the music industry, historical elitism in high fashion? Nothing could hold her back.
Following Rated R Rihanna would deliver several more hit records and accompanying singles. A string of fashion collaborations would lead her to start her own company, Savage X Fenty in 2018 and since this time Rihanna’s unrelenting forward momentum has not ceased. Never content to rest on the laurels of simply being a pop icon, her interests have extended to film as well as fashion.
With an estimated fortune of $600 million, Rihanna is one of the richest self-made women in the world. ‘Rude Boy’ and Rated R form part of this journey. Here, Fenty consolidated her success as a chart-topping pop act and continued to define her destiny.
What Defines Her
Some artists affect their listeners in ways more emotional, more direct, and more simple than any of their peers. They have more imagination, more poetry, more emotion, and more intensity. They sing like everything is at stake. They paint large themes drawn from an even greater creative vision. They leave us simultaneously feeling elated and wiped out. Rihanna is one such artist.
Rihanna's 'Rude Boy'8
The music video
She ain't fakin
She got back with Brown
Some of 'Rated R' fell flat
Has not released an album since 2016