Barbados is a small Caribbean island 1/13th the size of Prince Edward Island. Like Grenada or St. Lucia, it’s a place nearly everyone has heard of, but few know anything about, beyond that it’s hot and beautiful. Not unlike our cover girl. But despite its size, the tiny tropical isle is the birthplace of one of the biggest pop stars in the world today.
Rihanna strides into the photo studio an hour late. No one seems to mind, and aside from relief, there is little fanfare. She scans the shoot’s rack of clothes coolly, then strolls over to the makeup table. At the point of our meeting, her latest disc, Good Girl Gone Bad, is barely a week old. It and the first single, the inescapable “Umbrella,” are doing quite well, thank you.
Prior to her arrival, I’d been surrounded by people in their 30s and 40s, all swearing to an inability to remove her album from their player. Hyperbole before the big meeting? Perhaps, but even less-than-devoted followers of pop/R&B can’t claim to have any greater resistance to her powers.
Just 19 years old, Rihanna is on her third album. Signed to the Blue Note of hip-hop, Def Jam Recordings—a label run by Jay-Z, one of the most successful artists and businessmen in music—she already has contracts with JC Penney and Nike and a recent Cover Girl campaign under her belt.
In pop terms, her age is less the exception than the rule, but from head-shaving and rehab to wardrobe choices that disdain underwear, many young stars behave in ways that make 24 ripe for a mid-life crisis.
And then there’s Rihanna. Aside from unsubstantiated rumours regarding dalliances with Jay-Z, her name is never in the tabloids. Not that she’s a wallflower. Ask about the process behind her new album, and her confidence is blunt.
“I had all the freedom I could ever ask for,” she confirms, her voice sleek with cockiness. “Not that they gave it to me. I was just taking it. That’s why it’s called Good Girl Gone Bad. I wasn’t about listening to what anyone wanted me to look like, or sound like, or act like.”
Now, in pop music, a young star taking the reins isn’t all that simple. Or even the best idea. A recent Wall Street Journal article about Rihanna’s peer, American Idol success story Kelly Clarkson, chronicled that singer’s recent fall from grace. With an underachieving single, “Never Again,” and an arena tour cancelled due to low ticket sales, most of the blame was being aimed at Clarkson’s adamant decision to write her own material for her third release, My December.
To hear her talk, Rihanna had no less need to take control over her third disc. “Before, it was kind of boring,” she intones frankly of her first two albums, 2005’s Music of the Sun and 2006’s A Girl Like Me. “It worked because, exactly, it worked. It was generic. It’s been done before. With this album, I wanted to take risks. I wanted to take chances.”
Listening to Good Girl, it’s hard to know exactly what she’s risking. If Rihanna’s idea of sticking it to the Man is collaborating with proven hitmakers like Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and Ne-Yo, not many executives would complain. Maybe the key is that despite her tough talk, Rihanna has a keen sense of how the industry works and how to play to her strengths. Take the story of first single “Umbrella,” for example.
Its pseudo–dance hall refrain (“you can stand under my um-burr-ella/ella-ella/ay-ay-ay”) drips so convincingly with her native Bajan cadence that it’s kind of surprising to learn she had no hand in its composition. Maybe she didn’t write it, but she fought damn hard to get it. “It came to the label for another group,” she recalls, “and one of the executives at the label, she said, ‘I have to play this for you.’ I heard it and I loved it, and I battled to get it.”
It is easy to see why. Not only does the song suit her range and phrasing perfectly, but it’s also a definitive “summer jam”—expertly constructed with a universal theme of commitment, but just silly enough to never take itself too seriously. From someone whose most commonly stressed mandate is to “have fun,” it’s an ideal fit.
Not that Rihanna’s having too much fun right now. Our conversation stops as she tries to extract an errant eyelash, which has worked its way under her lid, without ruining her freshly applied makeup. Aside from the hustle and bustle of photographers and editors preparing for their turn with the young star, it’s completely silent. Suddenly, the key to her balanced approach is clear: The shoot is late, she’s doing an interview while getting made up, she still has to choose what to wear, and she’s unfazed by any of it.
She’s grounded. Now, every pop star from Britney to Xtina will tell you that they are grounded on some level. But to what? Childhoods spent in malls in Louisiana or Staten Island, freighted with everything that goes with North American culture—the entitlement, the desensitization, the relentless consumerism?
These things are not quite of Rihanna’s world. As she puts it, “I think it’s a few things, but part of it is being brought up in a different culture.” A culture that Rihanna literally brings with her. “My friend,” she says, pointing at one in her entourage, who looks up smiling. “She’s from Barbados. I stay in contact with my friends and my family a lot.”
Of course, she’s got money, fame and handlers, and she can list off her favourite designers (Dolce & Gabbana, Zac Posen and Balenciaga among them) in a way that makes it clear she can afford them. It’s just that you get the sense she appreciates all of this on a level that an American girl simply cannot. Confident but not arrogant, humble but not shy—has Rihanna really nailed the balance? I leave our interview feeling just that…
“You get a refreshing burst of shine without all that sticky feeling.” I look up from my laptop as, in a serendipitous moment, Rihanna dances across my TV screen while I sit trying to finish this article. It’s her Cover Girl ad for Wetslicks Fruit Spritzers. At the end of the ad, she sings the Cover Girl slogan and drops a plug for Good Girl Gone Bad. Everybody’s happy.
A few days earlier, when asked about the campaign, she brightens immediately. “When they first approached me, they said it was between me and this other girl,” she recalls. “We just prayed about it, and eventually they called and said, ‘You’re our Cover Girl.’ I was like, ‘What!?’”
If this seems all too perfectly placed—as she says, “another dream come true”—Rihanna seems aware of the finite nature of her right now red-hot career. “I just try to think about the fun in it,” she tells me. “You have to have fun, or you will go crazy.”
I don’t think you need to be a pop star to appreciate that.
First published in FASHION Magazine October 2007