2005’s Music of the Sun transformed Rihanna from an unknown 17-year-old from Barbados into an international superstar. With Good Girl Gone Bad she broke free from the girl-next-door persona a heartless record industry had forced upon her. Then, after the 20-year-old Rihanna had been savagely beaten by boyfriend Chris Brown, Rated R pushed past the self-doubt which followed the terrifying helplessness abuse. Rihanna refused to let domestic violence, or anything else for that matter, define her story. With her ninth studio album, she faces yet another significant challenge. Her own success.
Rihanna poses for Fenty promotional photo.
What is Rihanna’s Appeal?
Rihanna has universal appeal. Overcoming an abusive father and not-so-wonderful childhood, she made her dream come true. Hers is a story where good triumphs over evil. Progress and equality trump adversity and discrimination. An American success story, her wish came true. As a fan, it is hard not to buy into the optimism that yours can too.
What Will R9 Be Like?
Words like fearless, unapologetic and edgy have come to embody Rihanna’s work. Her ninth album, unofficially titled R9, seems no exception. Rihanna has shared she wants to take her music, alongside her clothing brand, to “a different level”.
Multiple sources, including Rihanna herself, have confirmed her ninth album was being recorded in 2020. Teases from her Instagram account also revealed she has been in the studio a number of times in 2019. Diplo and Pharell Williams are involved. As is singer-songwriter Skylar Grey.
One rumour is that R9 will be a double album. This comes from a statement from a source claiming to be close to Rihanna. In 2018 the source informed Metro Rihanna was recording two albums worth of material. One of these albums leant heavily on pop singles. It had a commercial feel. The other was concerned with exploring Rihanna’s moodier and more experimental side.
R9 is a Reggae Inspired Album
Rihanna has hinted R9 will be a reggae-inspired album. It will call back to the music of her childhood. “It’s not gonna be typical of what you know as reggae,” she told Vogue in 2020. “But you’re going to feel the elements in all of the tracks.” In earlier interviews, Rihanna has shared that reggae was the first music she truly loved. She grew up idolising artists like Barrington Levy, Beres Hammond, and Booji Harrington. That is, before she discovered Mariah Carey.
“Reggae always feels right to me,” she told Vogue. “It’s in my blood. It doesn’t matter how far or long removed I am from that culture or my environment that I grew up in; it never leaves. It’s always the same high. Even though I’ve explored other genres of music, it was time to go back to something that I haven’t really homed in on completely for a body of work.”
When Will R9 Arrive?
Rihanna enjoys the element of surprise. Her album and tour announcements usually arrive only a month or two in advance. The paralysing effect of the coronavirus pandemic on touring and album releases (which depend on live performances to generate income for the artist) cast an uncertain trajectory for Rihanna in 2021. Even if she has an album ready to share fans may not hear it until 2022.
It is not all bad news. In March 2021 Rihanna teased she was considering releasing a new song soon. “I think I should,” she replied to one fan’s comment on Instagram in March, “soon. Just one though.”
The $600 Million Woman
R9 is not Rihanna’s only focus. In 2021 she has proved herself to be more than just a pop star and cultural icon. Rihanna is a $600 million businesswomen, a titan of the fashion industry. Her fashion brand itself is estimated to be worth more than a billion dollars.
Serving Two Masters?
“No one person can serve two masters,” goes the ancient saying, “for either they will hate the one, and love the other or else they will hold to the one, and despise the other.” Rihanna’s fashion career has never been more intense. Her Savage x Fenty lingerie, Fenty Beauty and Fenty Skin businesses dominate the market. Her hold over a traditionally white and male-dominated industry continues to grow. As the first black woman to own a fashion house Rihanna is breaking new ground. This work cannot be understated.
She has also suffered her fair share of setbacks. Rihanna’s Fenty Clothing line shut down in February 2021. The news followed a failed bid to secure funding which would have seen Fenty Clothing expand into retail on a scale comparable to brands like Adidas and Nike. Rihanna has shared that despite the winding up of the company this will not be the last of her clothing projects.
Corporate Haze All In My Mind
Many fans, however, have no interest in makeup, lingerie or fancy fashion. They love Rihanna the artist, not the business person. As the heart of the commercial empire, it can feel she is lost in a corporate haze.
Demand for Rihanna as a performer and recording artist has never been greater. Her last album ANTI arrived all the way back in 2016. Almost five years on it continues to hold a place on the US album charts. Today, the album’s reputation precedes it. ANTI is one of the most celebrated, not to mention the highest-selling, records of the decade.
Rihanna is Taking Time for Herself
Long waits between Rihanna albums are not uncommon. Rihanna has traditionally worked at her own pace. She has complete autonomy over whether or not she releases music. This “it’s done when it’s done” approach seems to have been slowed even further due to her recent decision to take more time to herself.
“It’s only the last couple years,” she told Interview Magazine in October 2020, “that I started to realize that you need to make time for yourself. Your mental health depends on it. If you’re not happy, you’re not going to be happy even doing things that you love doing. It’d feel like a chore. I never want work to feel like a chore.”
She then shared that while her career is still her purpose she now regularly takes more personal days after coming to recognise unhealthy and workaholic tendencies. During these periods Rihanna “shuts down” for one, two or three days at a time. She is making the little things in life, like walking to the local store or going for a stroll, a big deal. There is also the matter of her new romance with ASAP Rocky.
Does Rihanna Have Love on The Brain?
Rakim Athelaston Mayers (better known as ASAP Rocky) opened for Rihanna on tour in 2013. He also collaborated with her in 2020 for the Savage X Fenty menswear drop as well as its accompanying Vol 2 fashion show. In 2020 it was revealed the pair were spending time together in Barbados. Rihanna later confirmed they were together.
“I got into a new relationship,” she revealed to Interview in 2020, “and it matters to me. It was like, ‘I need to make time for this.’ Just like I nurture my businesses, I need to nurture this as well. This is a new thing.”
Rihanna recognises that this has slowed down her work. “It’s the reason why an album isn’t being spat out like it used to,” she shared, “I used to be in the studio, only the studio, for three months straight, and an album would come out. Now, it’s like a carousel. I do fashion one day, lingerie the next, beauty the next, then music the next. It’s like having a bunch of kids and you need to take care of them all.”
Does Rihanna Want a Family?
Kids? Rihanna wants a family. While she has shared in past she finds the prospect of childbirth scary she has admitted she wants to be a mother “more than anything in life”. Work pressure and the demanding nature of being a performer often pose as very real obstacles for women in the entertainment industry looking to start a family. Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and Halsey have all recently utilised the pause in touring caused by the coronavirus pandemic to focus on children. With things firm with ASAP Rocky, it would be surprising if the 33-year-old Rihanna had not considered it.
Touring Complications May Also Be Delaying R9
Touring, not albums can be a problem. An album can be written, recorded and released in a matter of weeks. For an in-demand artist, touring can be a years-long commitment. Rihanna’s 2013 Diamonds Tour made 96 stops across more than 25 countries. Her Loud Tour comprised 98 shows. 2016’s Anti Tour stripped this back to 71 dates across three countries.
There is no getting around the fact that Rihanna, at age 33, may just not be that crash hot on touring anymore. While many artist share that the exhilarating rush of singing before thousands feels like nothing else, they tend not to like long periods of life on the road. Who enjoys spending weeks or months away from friends, family and home? Touring is no holiday. Artists often move between locations so quickly they rarely see the outside of the concert hall, jet, tour bus or hotel. With no pressing financial need, a leisurely summer in Barbados seems like a far more attractive option.
Is Rihanna at Risk of Complacency?
Such considerations are external. Albums can also face problems from inside of the recording studio. If necessity can be considered the mother of invention, prosperity can be said to be the mother of complacency. Having seemingly unlimited money and resources to throw at an album can foster a belief that continued success is inevitable. This kind of abundance can erode any feeling of urgency. It can blind an artist to critical warning signs and windows of opportunity.
With a colossal budget, endless studio time, and no deadlines, creativity can fail to find its feet. In 1979 Fleetwood Mac spent $3 million in today’s money and an astounding number of hours recording their sixth album Tusk. Given that Tusk was the highly anticipated follow up to the band’s millions selling and era-defining Rumours, the world was ready for another blockbuster. Instead, Fleetwood Mac delivered an album that failed to hit the mark. The band was far from sunk, though the peerless heights of the Rumours were never matched again.
Rihanna and Guns N’ Roses might seem a flimsy comparison but with pop stars having taken on the rebellious mantle of the rock ‘n’ rollers of eras past it might be worth noting that the sixth G&R album Chinese Democracy took 19 years to arrive. When it did it was widely panned. Time tends to create the kind of fantasy and expectation artists can rarely meet. How long Rihanna can drag it out? Cat Stevens famously kept fans waiting 28 years.
The Case for R9: She’s Inspired
Now the good news. There are many considerations, some new, some old, which suggest Rihanna is on top of her game. Love is a powerful catalyst. Rihanna is in love and riding an incredible wave of success. At the same time, the world is changing around her. She has been deeply affected by 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, the global turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic and most recently the economic injustice faced by some of India’s poorest farmers.
“Every time we put out music,” Rihanna informed Interview Magazine in 2019, “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 World is Ready for a New Rihanna Album
What is more, the coronavirus pandemic has turned the fantasy circus of the pop world into a musical wasteland. 2019 stars and their albums seem to have spent the last year taking extended victory laps. This has created a situation where fans are hungry for the novel and the new. How else could singles like Olivia Rodrigo‘s ‘Drivers Licence’ have exploded and, in a commercial sense, swept the floor of all competition? The stage is set for Rihanna’s return. To add to this retro pop nostalgia reigns supreme. A throwback to early Rihanna (or even ANTI era Rihanna) would please millions.
Rihanna on the cover of her first major hit single, ‘Pon de Replay’.
Music is Rihanna’s Medium
It is also an error to underestimate Rihanna. She has a historical record of succeeding in the face of adversity. Rihanna makes comebacks from personal crises.
What is more, Rihanna has been obsessed with music since she was 5 years old. She has been a performer and dedicated musician since her early teens and recording international chart-topping hits since her late teens – close to her entire life. Recording and performing are Rihanna’s mediums.
“Music is, like, speaking in code to the world,” Rihanna told Vogue in her last cover interview, “where they get it. It’s the weird language that connects me to them. Me the designer, me the woman who creates makeup and lingerie—it all started with music. It was my first pen pal–ship to the world. To cut that off is to cut my communication off. All of these other things flourish on top of that foundation.”
Can Rihanna Do It Again?
Yes, but can she do it again? Rihanna is musical by nature. She now has a life outside of the insular world of music. One which has responsibilities and competing goals. Her wealth and status carry enormous risks and responsibilities. Her sway over culture has never been greater but nothing lasts forever, a saying which is especially true of pop.
Fame is difficult to win and even more impossible to hold on to. Even the smallest misstep can see an artist fall from grace. Rihanna’s dominion over music and fashion seems all but assured. But fame and popular culture are fickle forces. A star can spend years at the pinnacle. They rule like a monarch over popular culture. They embody the energy and spirit of the times.
Then the wheel turns once more. The end comes quickly. When the star’s career begins to falter they vanish not long after. Plummeting from the celebrated heights of fame, their story is reframed from winner who can do no wrong to tabloid trainwreck. Others fade. Some stars however suffer a very particular fate. They become paralysed under the weight of their own success.
As a superstar, Rihanna bears the heavy burden of living up to the public’s near impossible expectations. As unenviable of a position as this is, high-pressure situations like these often yield spectacular results. For her millions of fans and many more, besides Rihanna has come to embody the culture and attitude of modern times. With her career now stretching into its third decade, fans are ready for what comes next. Rihanna has taken them to the top. Where can she lead them from here?
Rihanna Faces The Unknown
2021 is an unknown. Not just for Rihanna but for everybody. One thing which is certain is that when the outside world falls apart, Rihanna has always been able to escape into a world of music. With harsh realities left behind, she enters a fantasy world where the characters she creates, and the person she embodies blurs. In this world, she is in complete control. When she returns to reality an album is born. And the results are captivating.
The Key to Rihanna’s Success
Rihanna is a dreamer. The key to her success and enormous popularity is that she makes her dreams come true. Rihanna takes what is inside her mind as well as her heart and makes it real. While her net worth may be astronomical, her greatest achievements are those of the imagination.
Her aura of invulnerability only seems to grow with time. Today she is a global symbol of empowerment, glamour, and success. Bringing everything else that is going on in her life into focus, her music can often seem like a sideshow.
And yet, music is at the core of who she is. It is through her music and creativity that she has connected with and captured the imagination of the world at large. After climbing to pop stardom, Rihanna has learnt to trust her instincts. Now that she does, rarely has she failed in meeting the heavy expectations placed upon her.
Can she once again hold the world in awe with R9? Surely. Rihanna has remoulded the world not only into something closer to her heart’s own desire but yours and mine as well. Rihanna is the bringer of change. Combined with her enormous influence and wealth, she is someone who can alter the course of popular culture and perhaps society as a whole.
Rihanna’s fans, more than ever, are in need of her particular talents. It’s a make or break moment. If she can overcome the inertia of her own success, surely she will deliver an album in truly spectacular fashion. But while success may all but seem assured, it is vain to predict the future. The only thing that can be said with absolute certainty is this. Whatever R9 holds in store, the world will never be the same.