A Bold Move
A Bold Move
As Rihanna and her friends stood poised to sing for Evan Rogers that day, all eyes were on them. The music executive seated before them would decide their fate. Getting an audition with a major New York music producer was Rihanna's first step on the road to stardom. She had only a short time to prove that she was good enough for the big time.
Although she was nervous, Rihanna had determined to make the most of her opportunity. For the occasion, she dressed in pink capris, a pink shirt, and pink sneakers. She fought her nervousness and sang the song that won her the talent show, Mariah Carey's “Hero.” She followed up with “Emotion” by Destiny's Child. As they had in the talent show, her two school friends sang backup. But for Rogers, Rihanna's performance stood out:
The minute Rihanna walked into the room, it was like the other two girls didn't exist. She carried herself like a star even when she was 15. But the killer was when she opened her mouth to sing. She was a little rough around the edges, but she had this edge to her voice.18
Rogers was interested enough to ask for another audition—this time with Rihanna alone.
Since the 1980s, Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken's songs have propelled many stars up the charts. In 1991 they sang with their own group, Rhythm Syndicate. Their pop song “P.A.S.S.I.O.N.” became a number-one hit. After two years of touring, they became full-time songwriters and music producers.
In 1998 their song “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You,” sung by 'N Sync, moved to number eight on the charts, and “All That I Need,” performed by Boyzone, went to number one. In the early 2000s their songs helped launch pop singers Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, and Jessica Simpson to the top of the charts.
In 2005 they formed Syndicated Rhythm Productions and marketed Rihanna. They went on to sign others, including Shontelle, J-Status, the Urgency, and Javier. Later they collaborated on a publishing deal with Universal Music and worked with Anastacia, Mikaila, and Innosense.
A Grammy-nominated team, by 2008 they had more than twenty top-forty hits, twelve top-five hits, and six BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) Awards. Their songs are found on more than 60 million albums sold around the world.
Rihanna's impromptu concert with her friends in Rogers's hotel room had moved her one step closer to her dream, but now that the producer had singled her out for a second audition, she needed to prove she had the star quality he was seeking. Her mother accompanied her to the audition, and Rihanna, who had no time to change, was still dressed in her school uniform.
She may have looked more like a schoolgirl than star material, but her voice captured Rogers's attention. When she finished this second performance, he invited her to come to the United States to meet his partner, Carl Sturken, and record a demo tape.
In the Cinderella story, a fairy godmother whisks Cinderella to the ball in a pumpkin carriage. In Rihanna's fairy tale, her fairy godfather flew her to New York City in a plane to record her singing. Throughout the next year Rihanna and her mother traveled back and forth from Barbados so she could make the tape. Once she turned sixteen, with her mother's permission, Rihanna left school in Barbados and moved to the United States to live with Rogers and his wife in Stamford, Connecticut.
Going from a small island to Manhattan Island, where New York City is located, could have been overwhelming. New York City is only slightly larger than Barbados, but it has thirty times the population. Rihanna was also alone in a strange country far from home, but she stayed focused on her purpose. She says, “To pursue my dreams, and with their support, I left my entire family in Barbados to move to the States. It was a little scary to have no friends or family and all of a sudden step into a recording studio.”19
She took it in stride. She claimed that when she left Barbados, she did not look back. She was willing to do whatever it took to be successful, even if it meant leaving her homeland and moving to another country. Yet there were many things she missed about Barbados:
I loved hanging out with my two little brothers at the beach and hanging out with my friends at this club called The Boatyard. That was our spot, our thing. I loved it, the warm weather, the warm people, everyone there is more laid back. When I moved here everyone was more fast-paced about everything, it was completely different.20
When asked what her hardest adjustments were, she admits that she missed her family and friends. She also found the schools in the United States quite different. Eventually, because
she needed to devote so much time to her music, she finished school with a private tutor.
The hours she put into her music paid off when Rogers and Sturken sent her demo tape around to studios. For many artists, waiting for music executives to review a demo tape and get back with an offer to audition can be a long process. Many companies do not respond at all. In Rihanna's case, though, offers soon came flooding in. Various companies requested auditions, but Def Jam, the first label to ask for a meeting, was the most enthusiastic.
For Rihanna, a chance to audition for the company that represented such famous musicians as Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Ne-Yo was the chance of a lifetime. It was also frightening. When she learned that she would be auditioning for Shawn Corey Carter, better known as Jay-Z, she was in awe. She had seen his picture on albums and in fan magazines, but the thought of actually performing in front of him was another story: “And that's when I really got nervous. I was like: ‘Oh God, he's right there. I can't look, I can't look, I can't look!’ I remember being extremely quiet. I was very shy. I was cold the entire time. I had butterflies. I'm sitting across from Jay-Z. Like, Jay-Zee. I was star-struck.”21 Before she auditioned, however, Jay-Z put her at ease, and she was able to give the performance of her life. She sang Whitney Houston's “For the Love of Me” and two Sturken-Rogers compositions, “Pon De Replay” and “The Last Time.”
Born Shawn Corey Carter on December 4, 1969, Jay-Z took his stage name from his nickname, Jazzy. His name also comes from the J and Z subway lines in New York and is a tribute to Jaz-O, on whose albums he sang.
Abandoned by his father at age ten, Jay-Z grew up in the New York housing projects. One of his albums, Can't Knock the Hustle, tells of his drug dealing and hard childhood.
Jay-Z turned to music, but no recording companies picked up his first song. He formed his own company, Roc-A-Fella Records, with two friends in 1996. His career was launched when his album Reasonable Doubt made number twentythree on the charts. Other bigger hits followed; so did seven Grammys.
Although he declared his retirement in 2003, he continued to perform. In 2005, at his famous “I Declare War” concert, he surprised the world by performing with his rival Nas. A statement he made later, after hearing criticism of hip-hop, explains his philosophy: “We have to respect each other's genre of music and move forward.”
He was the chief executive officer of Def Jam from 2004 to 2008. He co-owns Rocawear clothing, the professional basketball team the New Jersey Nets, and a chain of sports bars, among other businesses. In 2007 he was the richest hip-hop artist in the country, worth about $940 million. On April 4, 2008, he married Beyoncé Knowles, and the two planned to launch a new label.
Quoted in Indo-Asian News Service, “Noel Gallagher Is Narrow Minded: Jay-Z,” NDTV Music.com, May 13, 2008. www.ndtvmusic.com/story.asp?id=ENTEN20080049721.
After she sang, she was startled when Jay-Z clapped for her performance. Then he let her know he was interested in having her as part of Def Jam. Jay-Z later admitted that it had only taken him two minutes to realize that Rihanna could be a star. He explains:
It was in her eyes. She had it all in her eyes. The way she carried herself and performed right there on the spot, I was like, “Wow, she's a star, we'll figure out the rest later.” We wouldn't let her out of the building. We actually closed all the doors, brought her some food. She brought in her lawyers and her production team, and we signed the deal that day.22
He not only offered to sign her then and there, he offered her a six-album contract. He did not want to lose her to rival companies. Rihanna recalls that Def Jam locked her in their offices until 3 AM, and Jay-Z teased her that she had only two options for getting out: signing the papers or exiting through the window. Because they were on the twenty-ninth floor, Rihanna was flattered that he liked her singing that much.
For Rihanna to be signed by such a well-known label—and by none other than superstar Jay-Z himself—was incredible. “When Jay told me he wanted to sign me, I was smiling from ear to ear,” she remembers. She agreed to the deal that night and signed the papers. “As I left Def Jam, I was walking up and down the streets screaming. I couldn't sleep for three nights straight. I woke up every second thinking is this for real?”23
She soon realized she had a lot of work ahead of her. Rihanna, along with Rogers and Sturken, holed up in the New York studio to compose songs. Over the next few months, Rihanna recorded them, and her first album, Music of the Sun, came together. With its catchy beat and island cadence, it fused many Caribbean musical traditions and reflected the diversity of the Bajan language with its combination of British and West African speech.
Although Rihanna's homeland provided the inspiration, the true genius behind the success of the album was Syndicated Rhythm Productions. Rogers and Sturken did for her what they had done for other singers—put together a collection of tunes that showcased her unique talents. As critic Jason Birchmeier explains in the All Music Guide:
Rihanna benefits from the knowing production work of Syndicated Rhythm Productions, aka Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken…. What these guys do that's so irresistibly shrewd is synthesize Caribbean rhythms and beats with standardissue urban dance-pop: Caribbean-inflected urban, if you will. So while a song like “Pon de Replay” … is driven by booming dancehall-lite beats and a reggae vocal cadence (and title spelling), it's a simple dance-pop song at its core, with … a can't-miss singalong hook (and a glitzy, urbanstyle MTV video to boot).24
Barbados was once a British colony, but its population has European, African, and South American roots. Thanks to this mix, the island has a variety of musical styles. One of the most popular is reggae, which has come to be associated with the Caribbean Islands. Reggae, which developed in Jamaica, is a blend of blues, calypso, and rock and roll. It has a strong, syncopated rhythm, and its lyrics are often protests against social injustice.
Another popular style is soca, dance music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago. It combines a strong, insistent percussion beat with lilting calypso music. It evolved from the local chutney music, which includes lyrics in Hindi or Bhojpuri (both languages from India) or in English, sung to an upbeat tempo. This music is usually accompanied by an Indian or Nepalese hand drum, a harmonium (a freestanding keyboard that sounds like an accordion), and metal rhythm sticks.
Rather than modeling her after other popular singers of the early 2000s—Alicia Keyes, Beyoncé Knowles, or Ashanti—they played up Rihanna's unique background. One advantage Rogers had was his knowledge of Barbados from his Bajan wife. He, like Rihanna, had absorbed the island rhythms. Rihanna's goal with her first album was to showcase her Caribbean heritage and reveal her fun side.
With that in mind, she helped write some of the songs. Many people wondered how much input Rihanna, as a sixteen-year-old, had in the creation of her albums. When Chris Rolls of MP3.com posed that question to her a year later, after her second album came out, Rihanna replied:
A good amount actually … as much as I want, really. But I don't like to be too much in control and too dominant. I like to hear other people … because I respect other people's opinion[s], especially in the creative world…. I get advice from producers … sometimes we go back and forth trying to figure out what's best and sometimes we just collaborate and make it the best.25
Relying on the judgment of pros like Rogers and Sturken proved to be a wise move. They had written “Pon de Replay,” one of the tunes she had sung at her Def Jam audition. The duo was convinced it would be a hit, but Rihanna confessed, “Actually, when I first heard that song, I didn't want to do it, because it was very sing-songy and very—whatever. Nursery-rhymish. But after I started recording it, I went along with it and started liking it.”26
To stir up interest in the album, “Pon de Replay” was released as a single in July 2005. The title is Caribbean slang meaning “play it again.” And DJs around the country responded by doing just that.