The creation of the 21st-century pop star in the early 2000s had strict requirements. It demanded whiteness, a cult-like following, and an ability to assimilate into any market. Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty arrived on the music scene in 2005 amid our search for a new black pop and R&B princess.
After signing with Def Jam in 2005, Rihanna pushed out two albums, Music of the Sun and A Girl Like Me, in two years. By 2008, she wholly flipped her “nice girl” marketplace imagery, shifting our definitions of a pop princess. Rihanna, in the 2010s, became a genre-bending superstar.
In 2010, at only 21 years old, Rihanna was preparing to promote her fifth studio album, Loud. Now, at 31, Rihanna has eight studio albums in the bag, full of gut-wrenching ballads, pop singles, dancehall riddims, and melodic crooning. All of them have shaped our lives. Rihanna is the modern-day blueprint for going your way.
To encapsulate Rihanna’s career in five songs is a difficult task, but below you’ll find the five songs that best display the depth of her artistry. The goal here is to look at Rihanna’s range, her stylistic shifts, and an evolutionary approach to music that reverberates in music to this day.
“Man Down” (2010)
The influences of soca, reggae, dancehall, and calypso are all vital to the foundation of Rihanna’s expertise as an artist able to experiment with sound. Wanting to craft a reference to Bob Marley’s 1973 track “I Shot The Sheriff” from a woman’s perspective, Rihanna introduced reggae—with electronic music sonics—to a new audience. “Man Down,” her first foray into reggae since her 2005 debut, reminds us Rihanna can sing anything she wants, and the end product will be gold. Her ear for curation is matured beyond her years.
The release of “Man Down” was Rihanna’s first taste of controversy. In the music video, she shoots her assailant after being sexually assaulted. Following its release, many groups called for viewer discretion warnings on the video. Thankfully, “Man Down” still became an anthem for survivor’s rage. It reflected a version of Rihanna who was ready for self-definition on her terms.
“We Found Love,” featuring Calvin Harris (2011)
Ten years of music from Robyn Fenty has taught us one thing: Rihanna knows how to give us a love ballad dripping in deep longing and escapism. On Talk That Talk, released in 2011, we said goodbye to the red-headed Rihanna who gave us dancehall and pop records and began to see the star in a new lane. “We Found Love” was the house anthem for two years running. The record filled every teen drama soundtrack with reckless abandon.
Famed DJ and producer Calvin Harris was at the top of his career at the time of their collaboration, allowing both parties to float on the rise of EDM and house music into the mainstream. The end result gifted a generation a sound for their summer romances.
“We Found Love” was not only successful commercially, but it also put a spotlight on Rihanna’s range as a vocalist.
“Loveeeeeee Song,” featuring Future (2012)
Many believe Rihanna’s guest turn on Kendrick Lamar’s “LOYALTY.” in 2017 is the best feature of her career. While I don’t disagree, “Loveeeeeee Song” is the best example of Rihanna’s ability to steal the spotlight from a male collaborator.
While Future belts out his deepest insecurities, Rihanna guides us through the apex of the song with her syrupy vocals calling for satisfaction. From 2012 to 2014, there wasn’t a single drunken clubgoer who squealed this hook and didn’t immediately feel the need for affection in the late night.
“Loveeeeeee Song” best illustrates Rihanna’s ability to be tip-tope the lines of electronic and house music, while still giving us one of the best trap ballads of the decade. The record displays Rihanna’s forethought in bringing a burgeoning trap icon to the mainstream in a time that couldn’t place the genre still profoundly misunderstood.
“Bitch Better Have My Money” (2015)
The era between Unapologetic and ANTI was tumultuous. Rihanna, after nonstop touring and album releases, took the most extended break of her career—at the time. After four years on the road, we saw the release of some of Rihanna’s boldest singles: “FourFiveSeconds” and “American Oxygen.”
“Bitch Better Have My Money,” and its brash cockiness, was different, though.
“BBHM“ is a grown woman’s record, and one of the many power records that demonstrated why the 2015 version of Rihanna was no longer a girl. Now? Now, she was a woman who would kill a man and casually count money while covered in his blood.
I’m not going to lie, I play “BBHM“ when I send spicy invoice emails.
On her magnum opus, ANTI, Rihanna employed a specific vocal styling, marking the return of gut-wrenching vulnerability to contemporary R&B.
Let’s just say, I pray you never drink dark liquor and fall in love with a stranger because “Higher” will lead your soul into the hands of a new lover.
I chose “Higher” for our list because of how painful the song feels. Few artists can display an emotion so precisely that you feel it in your bones, likes Rihanna does on “Higher.”
Any established artist could comfortably rest on their accomplishments and make catchy pop music to achieve charting glory, but Rihanna, much like legends before her (Beyoncé), continues to be self-aware and conscious of evolving in ways that ask us to feel deeper.