Rihanna is known as a singer on a colossal range of popular music tracks. She has collaborated with so many producers and fellow artists that it would seem almost offensive to try to mention them all by name. But for the purposes of this piece, I must try, if only to illustrate the artistic significance of Rihanna in popular music. I think singers sometimes, despite being the headline act, often get a hard time from critics, who see producers as the technical powers behind the artistic throne. While I think production is an art form unto itself, I think singing is its own technique that bridges between musical worlds. Here are some.
Rihanna hasn’t been in the public eye for some time, due to her pivot from singing to fashion designing and other business ventures — not unlike long-term musical collaborator Kanye West. On the album Anti, Rihanna deepens her hip hop credentials with a broad range of ballads like ‘Love On The Brain’ and bops like ‘Work’ (ft. Drake, the Hamlet to Kanye’s Shakespeare of the hip hop theatre). The production on the latter is nothing less than groundbreaking, and has inspired a host of club hits since then. And ‘Love On The Brain’ just goes to show that Rihanna remains perhaps the most assured high-powered singer in popular music, with an emotional depth to boot.
Rihanna had previously collaborated with a wide variety of producers on a range of popular songs. Kanye devotee Jon Bellion, who has recently become one of the foremost producers of popular music after his own brief spell in the spotlight with the startlingly inventive (and simultaneously catchy) ‘All Time Low’, wrote the hook to the Rihanna/Eminem collaboration ‘Monster’, echoing the track on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that helped Nicki Minaj’s rise to hip hop/pop stardom. Indeed, Dark Fantasy is a touchstone for so much popular music in the last decade, from Kendrick Lamar (who early in his career made a YouTube video of his own flow on ‘Monster’, anticipating his later ‘Backseat Freestyle’ on Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City) to Taylor Swift, whose folklore draws heavily on the vocal artistry of Bon Iver, whose hand on Dark Fantasy is nothing less than indispensable. (The Bon Iver/Kanye West links go deeper than this album, and have a lot to do with their mutual popularisation of autotune, which is now becoming standard practice not only for commercial pop songs, but also for artistic alternative pop musicians such as siblings Finneas O’Connell and Billie Eilish.)
Anticipating the later dominance of Sia over pop radio, Rihanna’s vocal range on ‘Diamonds’ is somewhat awe-inspiring, as is the absurdly incisive chorus of ‘Only Girl (In the World)’. These songs tracked Rihanna’s rise to fame after the club hits like ‘Disturbia’ accompanied the pivot from Britney Spears’ effervescent, jazz-inspired pop in the early 2000s to Lady Gaga’s darker, rock-inspired pop towards the end of the first decade of the third millennium. Rihanna, whose pop singing often also falls within the genres of R&B and hip hop, bridges not just between producers and rappers, but also between singers and genres. This vital bridging role has led to her being overlooked artistically, despite her success as a singer commercially. It is about time the vocal artistry of Rihanna is recognised. There is much to learn from such brilliance. Popular music wouldn’t be the same without Rihanna, and, thankfully, it never will. Change is inevitable, but it is helpful to look back at how popular music changed in the past — if only to inspire us to continue moving towards the future: vocally, technically, instrumentally, and artistically — or, in a word, musically. The 2020s are a time when music seems to have come to an artistic standstill, even as technical boundaries remain open to interpretation. Perhaps there remain, in the words of Rihanna’s chorus on track five of Dark Twisted Fantasy, ‘All Of The Lights’. Here is one.