Topping the Charts
Topping the Charts
On the Replay
The Thrill of Stardom
Riding the Wave
Working with Stars
A Change of Pace
The Sophomore Album
The Pussycat Dolls
Keeping a star popular often depends on timing. With so many singers vying for a place on the charts, a performer is only as good as his or her latest song. If too much time passes before a new song comes out, people can easily forget a former favorite. Before Rihanna's wave of popularity could crash onto the shore and recede, Def Jam wanted her riding the crest again. She needed to make a splash with her first album, then swiftly move on to her next.
“Pon de Replay” became one of the most played songs of summer 2005. It climbed the charts to number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Critics raved about Rihanna. Reviewer Justin Lewis described her debut in Associated Content:
She blasted onto the scene and straight to the top of the charts with her energetic ode to dancehall grooving, “Pon De Replay.” The infectious beat pulsating out your speakers and straight down your spine; Rihanna's accented soprano sounding hypnotic against the groove and burning the catchy hookline into your brain.27
Little X directed Rihanna's first video. In it, she electrifies a dull dance club by moving enticingly like a belly dancer while she sings “Pon de Replay.” The DJ turns up the music, and the previously bored crowd goes wild and dances along with Rihanna. The video, too, became a hit.
The excitement “Pon de Replay” generated among the dancehall crowd was nothing compared to the delight it gave Rihanna to
hear her song played on the radio. The first time she heard it, she was at the mall. “I was running up and down screaming, and people looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “But I didn't care. It was my song and there was no other feeling like it!”28
She was glad, too, that the music reflected her heritage. As she explained to one interviewer, “I feel so proud to see the Caribbean just getting put on the map and people really accepting and respecting our music.”29
When her first single reached number two on the charts, Rihanna was exhilarated to learn that the number-one song, “We Belong Together,” was by her idol, Mariah Carey. Coming in second to the singer she had admired and imitated since childhood was a breathtaking experience for the now seventeen-year-old.
The popularity of “Pon de Replay” had eager audiences around the world waiting for the album release. When Music of the Sun came out a few months later in August 2005, a close-up of Rihanna graced the cover. The face of the pretty Bajan teen, who had won a beauty contest the year before, gave the album another strong selling point. People flocked to buy the recording by this previously unknown singer.
At first some people were skeptical about the album and about Rihanna herself. Music critic Jason Birchmeier explains: Given the proliferation of young and beautiful urban dancepop divas dominating the radio and music video airwaves in 2005, it initially was tempting to discount Rihanna as yet another Beyoncé-Ciara-Ashanti cash-in. But like her Def Jam labelmate Teairra Mari—another young and beautiful urban dance-pop diva who emerged out of nowhere in 2005—Rihanna is winsome rather than wannabe, thanks in no small part to her producers.30
Some of the album's popularity was due to its unusual blend of music. It contained everything from ballads to reggae. One of Rihanna's fanzines praised the variety and commented that “besides ripping traditional reggae tracks like a seasoned dancehall queen, the stunning 17-year-old Rihanna possesses a powerful singing voice that conjures up feelings and experiences way beyond her years.”31
Reviews ranged from one oft-repeated criticism that the album lacked replay value, ingenuity, and rhythm to that of Rolling Stone magazine, which described the album as “a seductive mix of big-voiced R&B and souped-up island riddims—what Beyoncé might have sounded like if she had grown up in the West Indies and skipped the whole Destiny's Child thing.”32
Although many critics cited the unevenness of the album, most agreed that it was a good first effort. Others, such as music critic Bruce Britt, were more effusive with their praise. Britt saw Rihanna's album as a springboard to greater future successes. In BMI Music World, he predicted:
Rihanna is much more than a dance-floor diva, as her Def Jam Records debut album, Music of the Sun, attests. Tracks like “The Last Time,” “Here I Go Again,” and “Now I Know” showcase an agile voice that's grounded in pop, soul, gospel, and Caribbean traditions…. Her debut album was one of the most anticipated pop recordings of 2005. Judging from its impressive mix of Caribbean dance jams, funk rumpshakers, and soul ballads, Music of the Sun is the auspicious beginning of a high-flying career.33
His assessment was right. With “Pon de Replay” fast catching on and Music of the Sun debuting at number ten, Rihanna had already made an impressive start. To increase sales for her first album, she went on tour, opening for pop singer Gwen Stefani from October to December 2005.
Soon people not only came to see Stefani, but they bought tickets because they wanted to hear Rihanna, too. Her fan base grew. One of the reasons for Rihanna's popularity was her willingness to sing her heart out: “I just go for it [in concert]. I know that they came to see me, so I have to give them my all and make the show worth it for them.”34
Touring with Stefani did more than introduce Rihanna's name to the public and sell albums. It acquainted her with a new music style. “Coming from Barbados, I really hadn't heard that much rock music,” she explains. “Touring with Gwen changed my perspective. So, when I was discussing this project [her second album] with L.A. Reid, Chairman of Island Def Jam Records, I made sure to say I want to experiment with some rock.”35
Rock would be a new addition to a repertoire that, until now, had mainly included music she had listened to as she was growing up. As she explains, “I loved reggae music and I still do—Bob Marley, of course, Sizzla, Sean Paul, Damian Marley. The vibe of
American singer Gwen Stefani struggled to stardom with her brother's group, No Doubt. The band's early releases were unsuccessful. In the early 1990s its ska-pop sound was not popular with fans of grunge. The band also went through rough times after the suicide of lead singer John Spence.
Stefani's failed romance with bandmate Tony Kanal almost broke up the band, but later it provided songs for the group's next album, Tragic Kingdom, in 1995. The tour for the album continued for more than two years. Tragic Kingdom sold more than 16 million copies worldwide and received Grammy nominations.
Even after that success, No Doubt's next album was poorly received. The group made a comeback with Rock Steady in 2001. This time it changed its sound to include dancehall and reggae, but it still kept some New Wave influences. “Hey Baby” and “Underneath It All,” songs from the album, received Grammy Awards.
Stefani went solo with albums Love. Angel. Music. Baby (2004) and The Sweet Escape (2006), which garnered her Grammy Award nominations. “Hollaback Girl” became her first U.S. number-one single and the first digital download to reach more than 1 million in sales. Stefani is also known for her clothing line, L.A.M.B., a mix of ethnic styles from around the world.
it, that's what I love. It just makes you feel good. Reggae music is the music that I party to the most.”36 Now, however, she was ready to branch out in new directions as she started her next album.
Most companies wait at least a year before issuing a singer's next album, but Def Jam planned to release Rihanna's second album eight months after the first. Some reviewers saw the swift arrival of the second album as a cover-up for poor sales on the first one.
Justin Lewis asks in Associated Content:
So what does one do when their debut single is a smash hit and their debut album is lost in the shuffle in less than 6 months time? Go for the jugular, of course; call up some higher-profile producers, dilute the reggae with more straightlaced pop and R&B, send the artist's image into glamour overload, and issue forth a sophomore set in enough time to promote it as if your debut never really existed. And thus, 9 months after she emerged with Music of the Sun, Rihanna has returned to re-introduce herself with A Girl Like Me.37
Jay-Z contradicted that by saying that because Rihanna was a new artist, he wanted to get her music out to a wider audience. As part of that strategy, Def Jam planned to release a single from the album to start the publicity buzz. The first cut she recorded was “S.O.S.” Rihanna loved the song's rebel sound and was eager to work on it. Three days later, she had finished the recording. Luckily for Rihanna, she was a hard worker and her motivation remained high. The time pressure to get a second album out so soon after the first one was intense. “S.O.S.” was not the only song to be finished in record time.
While recording A Girl Like Me, Rihanna worked around a hectic schedule that included tours and interviews. She recalls:
Unlike the first album, where we had three months set aside to get the album recorded, the second album, we had no time. We were still promoting the first album, still promoting the first singles, and we just had to fit it in where we could, like at the end of the day, like at 11:30 at night we would start recording. Producers had to fly all over the world and come record with me and work with me…. It was crazy…. We got it done, but I'm still amazed because we had no time.38
Her schedule throughout 2005 included waking at five o'clock in the morning to start rehearsals. Throughout the day she squeezed in time to do her schoolwork, give interviews, work on video shoots, and write and record songs. If she had expected stardom to be glamorous, she soon found out that it involved a lot of hard work. Her perception of what it meant to be a star altered. As she explained to one reporter, “My love for music and singing will never change, but the rose-colored glasses are no longer so rosy.”39
A life that looked alluring to outsiders was not as impressive to live. One of the most difficult adjustments for Rihanna was handling the many demands of her new lifestyle without the support of family and friends. She had little time to make new friends in New York or to reconnect with old ones. Instead, she poured these feelings into her songs:
Many times over the past year, I didn't have anyone my age with me. When recording this album, I wanted it to seem like I was having a personal conversation with girls my age. People think, because we're young, we aren't complex, but that's not true. We deal with life and love and broken hearts in the same way a woman a few years older might. My goal on A Girl Like Me was to find songs that express the many things young women want to say, but might not know how.40
Most of the songs on the album dealt with personal issues Rihanna had faced. For example, “S.O.S.” is about a crush. According to Rihanna, she chose this song because she had strong feelings about a guy that she wanted to overcome. With its subtitle, “Rescue Me,” the song is a heartfelt plea for someone to save her from this obsession.
Popular with fans, “S.O.S.” found its way into three music videos. One of them reached number one on MTV's Total Request Live and stayed there for almost three weeks. In it, Rihanna, wearing a bikini, calls for help on her cell phone. She listens to “Pon de Replay” and “Tainted Love”—the song from Soft Cell that inspired “S.O.S.”
Another of the three videos gave Rihanna international publicity: a Nike promotional video with “S.O.S.” as the theme song. That video, centered around a dance contest in a gym, was Rihanna's first endorsement deal. Making the commercial gave her the opportunity to work with Jamie King, a choreographer who had also worked with stars such as Madonna and Shakira. During the six days it took to shoot the video, Rihanna learned a great deal about dance techniques. She disliked lunch breaks because she preferred to keep dancing.
The added exposure from the videos propelled “S.O.S.” up the charts. It became Rihanna's first number-one hit on the Hot 100 chart. It also debuted at number one on the Hot Digital Songs chart and reached number one in Australia and number two in the United Kingdom.
Doing videos and promotional deals meant longer days in the studio, but Rihanna had inherited her mother's drive and ambition: “I just try to work hard…. I try to be a workaholic and try to do the best I can to get better,”41 she says. Her goal is always to improve. She never wants to get comfortable with her level of success; instead, she plans to work harder to reach the next stage in her career.
Moving to the next level included recording with several wellknown singers and producers. To record her Yardie (Jamaican street gang) duet, “Break It Off,” with Sean Paul, Rihanna flew to Jamaica. She enjoyed the time she spent with the DJ and Grammy Award-winning vocalist. “I have so much respect and love for Sean Paul. He took me to visit the Bob Marley Museum before going into the studio, which was an amazing experience. When we finally got to the studio, I felt as though Marley's spirit was in the room with us.”42
Another singer and songwriter she admired was Ne-Yo. After hearing “Let Me Love You,” which Ne-Yo had written for R&B and pop singer Mario's second album, Rihanna decided she wanted to work with Ne-Yo. She explains, “For the second album, I was like, ‘You know what? I have to work with that guy Ne-Yo.’ And it made it a lot easier because he's on the same
Grammy Award-winning vocalist and songwriter Shaffer Chimere Smith, born October 18, 1982, took the stage name Ne-Yo. His first album, In My Own Words (2006), debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. More than three hundred thousand copies sold the first week, and it was certified platinum. Because of You (2007), his second album, also went platinum. His third, Year of the Gentleman, came out in 2008.
Ne-Yo's work is known for its appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds. This is something he strives to achieve; he has traveled the world and wants to include those experiences in his music.
In addition to songs for his own album, Ne-Yo has written for Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Britney Spears, and Celine Dion, among others. He is also known for the Grammy-nominated song “Irreplaceable” that he wrote for Beyoncé.
When asked how he comes up with his ideas, he explains, “Sometimes I see a picture in a magazine, a painting in a museum, or a word on a page, and that's all I need to trigger the thoughts.” He also claims that growing up in a house full of females gave him insight into writing songs for women.
In 2007 he opened his own recording studio, Carrington House. Paula Campbell, Sixx John, and Shanell were the first to sign with his label, Compound Entertainment.
Quoted in Def Jam Recordings, “Ne-Yo: Biography,” 2008. www.defjam.com/site/artist_bio.php?artist_id=593.
label I am. So we went into the studio and we started working on this song ‘Unfaithful.’ And it's one of my favorite songs on the album.”43
“Unfaithful,” a song about a girl cheating on her boyfriend, struck a chord with audiences everywhere when it was released as a single. Songs have often been written about guys cheating on their girlfriends, but Rihanna wanted to turn the tables. She says, “On a lot of records, men talk about cheating as though it's all a game. For me, ‘Unfaithful’ is not just about stepping out on your man, but the pain that it causes both parties.”44
Rihanna felt sure the song would be a hit. Def Jam decided to release “Unfaithful” as the album's second single. Putting it out as a single was risky because it was the first time she had done a stand-alone ballad.
Some fans who loved “S.O.S.” enjoyed Rihanna's new sound.
Others, however, did not appreciate the change of style. After it came out in July 2006, one reviewer commented:
Is this really the same Rihanna who took the charts by storm with “S.O.S,” that electro-pop-tastic take on “Tainted Love”? Regrettably, yes—this overwrought ballad smacks of cynicism, an attempt to keep all the usual album-filling bases covered rather than develop the upbeat style which clearly suits Rihanna so much better. Plinky piano melodies, plasticky strings, and hilariously melodramatic lyrics add up to one very disappointing single.45
In spite of the criticism, “Unfaithful,” like “S.O.S.,” rose to the top of the charts. Rihanna soon found herself at number one again.
The ballad was not the only different sound on the album. Gwen Stefani's influence was obvious in some songs. Rihanna wanted to meld rock with reggae. She used this new combination in the song “Kisses Don't Lie.”
She was pleased with the new sound as well as the variety on her album. More importantly, she felt that everything on the album revealed “what it's like to be a girl like me. Whether I'm cheating on people, whether I've been cheated on, falling in and out of love, people hating on me, having that crazy feeling that guys give you, partying—every aspect of my life.”46 The music was not so much about her culture as it was about her. The songs on the album, some of which she cowrote, were much more personal this time.
Rihanna had shared herself and her deeper feelings in the singles that came out, and most fans loved her openness. Capitalizing on these successes, Def Jam released the second album in April
The Pussycat Dolls began in a small dance studio in actress Christina Applegate's garage. Her roommate, Robin Antin, invited a few dancer friends to join her, and they played around with different moves. Antin describes her motive behind starting the group: “Inside every woman is a Pussycat Doll. It's about female empowerment, about being confident with who you are. It's about singing and dancing in front of a mirror by yourself and having fun.”
They began by performing at Johnny Depp's club, the famous Viper Room on Sunset Strip in California, where they became the opening act once a week for six years. In 2000 Gwen Stefani offered to perform and sing with them. Christina Aguilera did, too. By 2002 the group had moved to a bigger club.
Their first album, PCD, sold four million copies worldwide. Two of their songs were number-one hits—“Don't Cha” and “Stickwitu.” They also had two top-three singles—“Beep” and “Buttons.” By the time Rihanna joined them on tour in 2006, they had become the biggest girl band in the world.
Quoted in Pussycat Dolls, “Bio,” 2007. www.pcdmusic.com//Main.aspx?pbt_name=Bio.
2006. To promote it, Rihanna went on tour that fall. She opened for the Pussycat Dolls, an award-winning, all-girl band.
Whereas reviews on the first album had been mixed, this one met with mainly praise. In a review written before the album hit the stores, Chris Rolls of MP3.com concluded:
It seems like the winter was just not cold enough to chill the fiery Caribbean breeze that Rihanna generated last summer. In fact, it has been less than a year since Rihanna's Music of the Sun delivered the scorching dance floor hit “Pon de Replay.” This summer may prove to be another one spent sweating to Rihanna with the release of her latest album, A Girl Like Me.47
With the debut of her sophomore album, Rihanna established herself in the music world. In addition to talent, her success thus far had been fueled by hard work and determination. She would need plenty more of both to face the many challenges that stardom brought.