Does beauty and fame at a young age have to lead to sex and scandal? Not at all. Turns out R&B’s good girl hasn’t gone bad…
Whoever said that youth is wasted on the young never met Rihanna. With two platinum albums to her credit and a new one likely headed in the same direction, this girl’s made her mark on the music industry. Having a multimedia mogul like Jay-Z as her musical surrogate uncle has definitely been an advantage in an era where pop stars are cultivated and discarded like hothouse flowers—they’re nurtured, clipped at first bloom, made into an eye-catching centrepiece, and then pitched at the first sign of decay. But Rihanna’s right on track. And she’s only 19.
While preening contemporaries search for movie roles, reality shows, or just plain “forget” to get fully dressed before a red carpet event, Rihanna’s approach is more honest and pragmatic. And that’s a welcome relief in our fame-obsessed times. Sure, she is a spokesperson for CoverGirl and has made ads for Nike, not to mention that she hardly plays down her striking looks. Ultimately though, Rihanna makes music. She works hard. So when she describes herself as an “artist,” it is easy to see her as just that—a talented young singer who never seems to rest. (Her least favourite part of the music business? “Never getting a vacation,” she laughs.)
This summer saw the release of her third album in three years, Good Girl Gone Bad. “I finally feel like I made an album that really reflects me,” she says. The record certainly represents a change for her, but not one that is nearly as drastic as the title might suggest. Rihanna is aiming for free-spirited rather than reckless abandon. “It’s not Good Girl Gone Wild,” she stressed while speaking at KIIS FM in LA. “It’s kinda rebellious. I don’t want to follow the same lane and do what people expect me to do.”
And expectations were certainly high after 2006’s “SOS” was one of a small crop of singles to dominate the clubs last year. Paired with the bleep-bloop pop of Soft Cell’s well-loved 80’s anthem “Tainted Love,” “SOS” was the rare pseudo-remake that didn’t just piggyback lazily on the laurels of its tested backing track. Fun and thrilling of its own accord, it was a tough act to follow.
The happy news is that Rihanna’s next single, “Umbrella,” was even better. Driven by a lock-step hi-hat beat and a hypnotically ping-ponging chorus, the tune actually trumped “SOS,” its idiosyncratic “um-brella- ella-ella-eh-eh-eh” ricocheting across your mind like an errant dancehall tennis ball.
Her new album made great use of studio heavyweights such as Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, Ne-Yo, and the master of beat construction and production, Timbaland. It is a credit to her talent that, even though she’s surrounded by all these dominant musical personalities, listening to her sing “Umbrella” immediately reminds you of Rihanna’s home—Barbados.
Rihanna’s early life is one that was both literally and figuratively miles removed from the world she now inhabits. She was born Robyn Rihanna Fenty on February 20, 1988 in the parish of Saint Michael, Barbados. Despite being close to the capital city of Bridgetown, as a young girl she had no reason to expect that the music world would come calling. It was only a happenstance meeting that led to her eventual signing with one of the most influential men in hip hop, the somewhat retired Jay-Z. Up until that point, she was most famous for being her high school’s beauty pageant winner (she sang Mariah Carey’s “Hero” to win the contest).
But as Rihanna herself says, “I’ve always been passionate about music.” Perhaps that’s all it took. Her ability to fuse reggae vocals with hip hop and R&B made her very appealing to Jay-Z and his label Def Jam. And Jay’s tutelage seems particularly important when it comes to her image. In short, like him, she seems in control. The album’s cover showed her confident and mature. Like most girls her age, regardless of their life station, Rihanna is confronting how to play her sexuality as she matures.
In the past, performers such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera (or Xtina as she was known at that time) opted for coming-out parties about as subtle as a hammer to the head. In the case of “Slave 4 U” or “Dirrty,” the singles were headlong charges into a world of adult playtime that ultimately swallowed each singer whole. Writhing and breathless, they lacked the very thing they tried so hard to cultivate—a sexy spark.
When the video for “Umbrella” premiered, we were confronted with sequences of a naked Rihanna covered in silver body paint. The image is no doubt provocative, but it is less sexual than artful. Paired with the song’s message of steadfast friendship, the lasting impression is an iron strength—mature and feminine, but not tasteless.
This narrow line is one that Rihanna hopes to be able to walk for some time to come. She’s no enigma, but she does deviate just enough from the 21st century-pop star-overexposed-norm to give you hope that her brightest days remain ahead of her. And that’s no small miracle.
Up Close with Rihanna
Faze: What were you passionate about growing up?
Rihanna: I have always been passionate about music.
Faze: What’s your workout schedule?
R: I usually work out three times a week.
Faze: Do you ever binge and if so, on what?
R: I usually don’t eat tons of junk food. However, I never deny myself anything. If I want a cookie, I’ll eat a cookie. I think everything done in moderation is fine.
Faze: What’s in your iPod?
R: A little bit of everything, but just to name a few: Justin Timberlake and Ne-Yo.
Faze: What is your favourite golden oldie?
R: I love anything from Earth, Wind & Fire.
Faze: What are you guilty of doing?
R: Sometimes when I get nervous, I tend to bite my fingernails.
Faze: Best perks of the business?
R: Being able to travel all over the world and meet lots of different people.
Faze: What is your biggest pet peeve?
R: Mean or rude people.
Faze: What is your secret to success?
R: Staying grounded and focused.
Faze: What do you think all young women need to know?
R: You should believe in yourself and work hard.
|Rihanna has proven quickly that she understands her position of fame. Late last year, cosmetic giant CoverGirl announced that she was to be their newest face. The ad campaign featuring Rihanna started at the same time as the release of her new album. Her CoverGirl deal isn’t her first such endorsement. In early 2006, she signed with Nike—the first entertainer to sign with the company. Nike used her single “SOS” to promote their Nike Rockstar Workout Hip Hop video. Rihanna herself appeared in the video, performing moves designed by celebrity choreographer Jamie King. She also signed a contract last year to endorse JCPenney’s line of jeans called Bisou.
Interviews by Lorraine and the team.
Written for Faze by John Crossingham