Full disclosure: we’ve always thought Rihanna was overrated. Don’t get us wrong, she’s definitely got more personality than your average
Katy Perry global superstar, and she certainly has the vocal chops to boot. But to us, she’s always been (like most global superstars) putty in someone else’s hands. That’s why the Rihanna we know can ricochet between the radio pop of Shut Up And Drive to a bubblegum ballad like Take A Bow and back to a dance banger like Where Have You Been without anyone batting an eyelid.
It’s odd, then, to see so much naysaying over her #R8 releases. This week saw her release a brilliantly sensual interlude, James Joint, to the usual dull cries of disappointment that it isn’t another ‘banger’. Which reminds us of what happened earlier this year when Rihanna finally debuted some new material.
Honestly speaking, FourFiveSeconds was the first time since Rated R that Rihanna has made us sit up and take notice. While that album was perhaps a bit of a commercial dud, it was also a spiky insight into a post-Chris Brown RiRi, with dark and complex songs delivered with a ferocity that we didn’t think the singer of Umbrella could ever have in her. This new track, with the help of Kanye and Macca, surprised us in a similar way, in that Rihanna did something that none of us expected: chucked out chart favour and released a magnificent bit of campfire-soul.
That was our first clue that we should – thank Christ – abandon any notion of the S&M RiRi (the other clue mainly being a Yeezy executive production credit). But what was more disconcerting was the vitriol directed towards the track and, subsequently, the very excellent Bitch Better Have My Money, in which Rihanna projects like a female Future and conquers the current landscape of gritty R&B. There’s the hypocritical air that comes with fan ownership of a pop star like Rihanna, the sort that puts her in a very unfair lose-lose situation: try meld a tested sound with chart trends to pacify people (and end up torn down like Madonna), or evolve into something different and alienate the people who expect another We Found Love.
Luckily for all of us, Rihanna seems to have chosen the latter. Imagine her trying to recreate that sort of thing now – given how Calvin Harris‘s last album was one long facsimiled drone, she’s done the right thing by leaving him behind. And while Unapologetic did have a Guetta feature, she’s been right to realise that Pour It Up feels more her brand than Right Now.
Which is why this new material feels like the exact place someone like Rihanna should be right now. Given the company she keeps, it makes total sense – even Beyonce‘s album didn’t have immediate standout singles, instead a series of album tracks that worked as a cohesive whole with favourites that varied daily and took their time to grow. Rihanna probably should have gone down the same one-hit surprise-release route, but the important point is that she and her new producers have very much been noting trends. If FourFiveSeconds has her taking a leaf from the Kanye school of stripped back, BBHMM has her running alongside exciting and current R&B stars like Tinashe, Tink and Jhene Aiko.
That last point makes what Rihanna’s doing even more pertinent. There’s always been a chart aversion to straight-up R&B acts like these – particularly in the UK, where we doubt most chart consumers would even know those names – and it’s no surprise that the minute Rihanna decides to embrace that culture, she’s shunned and belittled for it. To that we say: tough shit (and check your prejudice, though that’s an entirely different article. Essentially, it’s very worrying how quickly something like this is sneered at because of a tastemaker’s covert cultural disconnect). These are damn good songs trailing an album so unpredictable that it’s her most exciting moment to date. If you want a tired EDM banger that panders to some stereotypical pop standards, look elsewhere. But if you’re after a Rihanna that could finally be worth getting on board with, #R8 might well be that ticket.