Many have recently asked what my thoughts are on Rihanna, the controversial pop-star most known for her catchy, sexually overt music and her former relationship with entertainer Chris Brown that ended in a well-publicized domestic altercation. Well, here it is. When Rihanna was signed to Def Jam Records mid-millennium, Reggaeton (urban music with heavy Latin and Caribbean influence) was still hot and one of the reigning queens of R&B/pop was Beyonce`. With Rihanna being a native of Barbados with a toasty complexion, I’m sure Rihanna seemed like a sure-bet cash cow to then Def Jam president Jay-Z. Not such; at least not at the time anyway. Her first 2 albums “Music of the Sun” and “A Girl Like Me” were quickly released within a year of each other and neither effort performed extremely well. Often dubbed in the media as “The Bajan Beyonce`,” music journalists often criticized the singer for bearing too much of an aesthetic resemblance to Beyonce` in her music videos and performances. As if the failed attempt at the Beyonce` blueprint wasn’t enough, Reggaeton was fading from the mainstream.
It was time to re-evaluate, so the record label took a drastic shift: they got big name R&B/Hip-Hop producers and turned Rihanna into the Anti-Beyonce`. Pop producers/songwriters Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken (known for their work with N’Sync & Kelly Clarkson) were traded out for urban heavy-weights Timbaland, Tricky Stewart, The Dream, Ne-Yo & Stargate. All but Timbaland have continued to work on Rihanna’s projects. Delivering intensely infectious and sometimes well-written tunes, popular producers and songwriters have made Rihanna a top 40 queen with singles constantly riding the charts. Her affiliation with one of hip-hop’s biggest-selling acts, Jay-Z, hasn’t hurt either. The street cred helped her garner Grammy nods and cross over into another genre, as she was featured on massive hits with established rap artists like Eminem, Kanye West & T.I. One can only theorize why all these hits haven’t translated into higher album sales, however.
Rihanna’s heightened commercial appeal was only furthered by her image transformation into the Anti-Beyonce`. Increasingly edgy, dark (sometimes gothic), rebellious and sexually-charged, Rihanna’s persona, music and reputation is the antithesis of the mild-mannered, Obama family-friendly Beyonce`. The contrast works well as Rihanna’s antics feeds the audience’s hunger for sensationalist gossip and their desire for music that expresses their own personality variances. Basically, Rihanna is who people indulge in and listen to when they’re in the mood to feel reckless, slutty and detached from anything thought-provoking. A sassy potty-mouth who’s often been photographed in public scantily-clad, partying and smoking weed, she’s music’s resident “bad girl” and it doesn’t appear that her record label or P.R. team is going to great length to disguise or clean it up. Why aren’t they? She’s doing exactly what they want her to do. Part of Rihanna’s promotion and marketing magic is to be the “wild child.” It keeps her in the news and people watching. Rihanna reminds me of that girl in college that’s sowing her oats and trying to figure herself out. Only, I’m not sure if Rihanna will ever “figure herself out” or mature, because she doesn’t seem to have people around that will encourage her to eventually take a more productive path. That’s why I kind of feel sorry for her; it’s like the record label is gaining at the expense of her growth. Should she one day want to be a different woman, it’s going to be an uphill battle with the executives. A battle I foresee she will lose, considering she doesn’t have much creative input and doesn’t give the impression that she’s business-savvy.
This brings me back to the music and my ideas on why she doesn’t sell as many albums versus singles. Pure and simple: people don’t take her seriously. When they see her, they see a dancing sexual blow-up doll. She’s doesn’t write songs, produce, arrange or play an instrument. The extent of her singing and dancing abilities are debatable-vocally, the main thing that makes her distinctive is her accent. Whatever allure her singles have are the result of a producer or songwriter’s effort; not her own. Rihanna could have been anyone; had Jay-Z signed another girl, the story wouldn’t change much. People aren’t willing to purchase and listen to an entire album by someone with debatable aptitudes, especially in an age where it’s incredibly easy to access music online for free. She’s only as good as her last catchy song. Few people have had lengthy careers on the strength of sex and controversy alone. You have to bring something else to the table. Rihanna herself doesn’t frustrate me as much as the concept of her does. Record labels sign people like her, exploit them, make their quick dollar, discard them and repeat with new blood. Not only is this practice disrespectful to the art-form, but it brings down the quality of available mainstream music. It also urks me that artists like Rihanna are offered deals when there are so many talented people who can’t seem to catch a break; especially signed acts who, despite their gift, aren’t properly supported or promoted by their label, but that’s another topic for another day.