Rihanna truly in love — what would that album sound like?
The world is clamoring for music from a happily dating creative titan of business — how will life influence Robyn Fenty’s art?
“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is growing up.” — James Baldwin
Venture at your own risk, into Rihanna’s Instagram comments. Some of the chat is difficult to follow — unless one is fluent in Navy lingo (her intensely loyal fan base) or emoji talk. But millions of the 66.7 million global fans of @badgalriri are in her comments supporting the superstar’s continuous transformation into, among other things, a modern-day Madam C.J. Walker.
The self-proclaimed bad girl is the quarterback of three brands: Fenty Beauty, Fenty PUMA and her body-positive lingerie line Savage x Fenty. As CEO and creator of Fenty Beauty, Rihanna is involved in every step of the process, from ideation to production to marketing, and the brand is not only a financial phenomenon but also, particularly for women of color, a cultural lifeline. “Some are finding their shade of foundation for the first time, getting emotional at the counter,” Rihanna told Time in 2017. “That’s something I will never get over.” What fuels her apparel and cosmetics empire is the same secret sauce that powers her music: passion.
Which brings us to another and final frontier of Rihanna’s Instagram comments: the relentless cries for new music. Fans aren’t just asking, either. They’re demanding.
Looks like Rihanna is dropping her album in 2019. pic.twitter.com/RfQq9T6AZ2
— Karen Civil (@KarenCivil) December 22, 2018
Rihanna’s professional résumé, as 2019 kicks off, is unimpeachable. Harvard Humanitarian of the Year. Accomplished actress. Top-selling digital artist of all time. She said no to the Super Bowl, opting instead for solidarity with exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. President Donald Trump caught smoke too. There’s her estimated net worth of more than a quarter-billion dollars. And she’s only five No. 1 hits away from passing Mariah Carey for the most by a woman in Billboard history — and seven away from The Beatles for the most, period. Whenever Rihanna does decide to release music, it will be a worldwide event.
She’s also experienced the pain of losing love both romantic and blood-bound. Rihanna lost her cousin Tavon Kaiseen Alleyne to gun violence the day after Christmas in 2017. “Now each time I hug somebody lately, I hug them like it’s the last time,” she said. “That may be my biggest life lesson, not to wait on anything, not even tomorrow.”
Nearly three years have passed since the release of Rihanna’s magnum opus, Anti. And it’s been nearly two years since we’ve heard music from her: the features on DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts,” Kendrick Lamar’s “LOYALTY.,” and N.E.R.D’s “Lemon.” Snubbed by the Grammys, Anti pushed Rihanna’s career to a new stratosphere. A deeply personal, sensual and at times gut-wrenching listen, it was the singer’s first album since 2012’s Unapologetic — and one that broke the trend of Rihanna dropping an album every year (except 2008) since 2005.
Now, Rihanna, in her Instagram comments, has confirmed that her musical sabbatical will end in 2019, but she has not confirmed much else. Some suggest her new work may take the form of a reggae-inspired album. Other reports suggest it could be a double album: one-half island vibes and the other half pop-driven. Like Rihanna herself, though, the only predictable reality is the unpredictable one. Which is why the only information known about her film Guava Island with Donald Glover … is that she’s involved in a project with Donald Glover called Guava Island.
Yes, Rihanna is that one who will pop off if the tea leaves read as such — yet she’s also this sweet, almost unrealistically accessible supercelebrity. One with personal connections to fans. She’s also a woman who seems in control of and confident in her sexual agency and prowess.
Now almost a year into her 30s, Rihanna — who has been linked over the past decade to Matt Kemp, Drake and Shia LaBeouf — is reportedly “smitten” but still mysterious about her love life with billionaire Saudi boyfriend Hassan Jameel. But for Robyn Fenty, life so often influences art. She’s fallen out of love. She’s fantasized about the concept of love. She’s longed for love. It seems she’s always loved herself. But what if this time — she’s actually in love?
Rihanna’s career completely shifted a decade ago when she was assaulted by Chris Brown. Before the assault, they were one of the music industry’s most beloved young couples, groomed for the kind of success in which then-newlyweds Jay-Z and Beyoncé were flourishing.
Both burst onto the scene in 2005: Brown with the Top 10 hits “Run It!” and “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” and Rihanna with the platinum No. 2 pop single “Pon de Replay.” Brown was pegged by many, including Rolling Stone, as the next Michael Jackson. Billboard named him Artist of the Year in 2008. That same year, Rihanna took home her first Grammy for “Umbrella,” her pop ditty with Jay-Z. It’s both fascinating and pointless to envision an alternate universe where Brown and Rihanna perform, as they were scheduled to, at the 2009 Grammys.
“To fall in love with your best friend it … can be scary because … the emotions … they get the best of you. Life takes over,” she told Diane Sawyer in November 2009. “The more in love we became, the more dangerous we became for each other, equally as dangerous.”
All of it called to mind the high-profile, tumultuous relationships of K-Ci Hailey and Mary J. Blige, Sean Penn and Madonna (although the singer, in a 2015 court document, said Penn never physically assaulted her) and Andre Rison and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. What happened in that Lamborghini on Grammy night 2009 — according to Brown, it began with a confirmation of infidelity on his part — ended with pictures of a viciously battered Rihanna leaked to TMZ.
“I felt like people were making it into a fun topic on the Internet, and it’s my life,” she said a decade ago. “… I was disappointed, especially when I found out the photo was [supposedly leaked] by two women.”
There was a short-lived reconciliation, and the burden of that decision and how it affected women she’d never meet kept Rihanna up at night. “I’d say … to any young girl who is going through domestic violence, don’t react out of love,” she said. “F— love.”
The 2009 incident played out in Rihanna’s Rated R, the album she began working on a month after the assault. She cried and lashed out at herself on the record. “[R] was very therapeutic for me,” she said. “I got to vent.” Records such as “Rude Boy” and “Russian Roulette” and “Te Amo” all became international hits, all showcasing a different side of a suddenly vulnerable Rihanna — but a Rihanna refusing to suffer in silence. I still love you, but I can’t do this, she confessed on “Stupid in Love.” Originally written for Brandy, the song’s pleas were tailor-made for Rihanna’s life in the moment: I may be dumb / But I’m not stupid.
Then came the 2011 worldwide smash “We Found Love,” from Talk That Talk. Traces of past love lingered in her music, as the video featured a Chris Brown look-alike and Rihanna in a passionately combative, bizarro fairy-tale companionship. But Rihanna’s career wasn’t just trending upward — she was skyrocketing. As “Love” spent its first 10 weeks atop the Billboard 100, the woman behind the music seemed not so different from many others in their 20s. Falling in and out of love, or what felt like love. Burying oneself in work.
“I’m not necessarily happy being single. It’s not really that cool,” she told Ellen DeGeneres. “[Putting my time into my work] definitely affects my personal life. My personal life is pretty much nonexistent.” Rihanna was then, and is now, self-reliant. It’s a form of protection and projection. But we’re all human, and Rihanna gets lonely too.
Isolation and heartbreak have historically made for provocative soundtracks. Artists such as Blige, Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye, Amy Winehouse, Adele and others have all benefited, and suffered, from centering authentic emotional strife. Rihanna doesn’t completely fall into that wheelhouse — but insecurity and vulnerability rest in her most personal song performances. Don’t slip, don’t slip / ’Cause a n—- might push up on it/ Don’t really wanna lose this moment, she pleads on “Loveeeeeee Song” from Unapologetic. Why window-shop when you own this? From the same album, “No Love Allowed”: He’s the only one-one-one I ever let get the best of me/ He say he care, but no tears in his eyes/ And ask me if I’m alright/ N—-, is you blind? They resonate. We’re all insecure and vulnerable about someone.
And the culture industry’s rapid creation of rumors freaked her out. “I’ve had to be so conscious about people — what they say and why they want to be with me, why people want to sleep with me,” she said. “It makes me very guarded and protective. I’ve learned the hard way.”
A decade of searching for the unconditional affection of someone who gets her, combined with her huge impact on culture beyond music and propensity to reveal personal growth in her music: A 2019 album from Rihanna is nothing short of tantalizing. What separates Rihanna from the rest of what figures to be a loaded musical palette in 2019 is that nearly 15 years into her career, she’s still an impossible-to-abandon mystery.
I know you’ve been hurt by someone else / I can tell by the way you carry yourself / If you let me, here’s what I’ll do/ I’ll take care of you.
— 2011’s “Take Care”
Love was the topic near her heart in the weeks leading up to Anti. That’s why the album’s songs bled together. Lustful chemistry in “Work.” Regal eroticism in “Sex with Me.” Revenge in “Needed Me.” Companionship in “Close to You.” Drunken apologies in “Higher.” All part of the emotional tool kit that comes with offering a piece of her soul.
“I haven’t been having sex, or even really seeing anybody, because I don’t want to wake up the next day feeling guilty,” she told Vanity Fair. “I mean I get horny, I’m human, I’m a woman, I want to have sex. But what am I going to do — just find the first random cute dude that I think is going to be a great right-for-the-night and then tomorrow I wake up feeling empty and hollow? I can’t do it to myself. I cannot. It has a little bit to do with fame and a lot to do with the woman that I am. And that saves me.”
So let unnamed sources talk about how enamored Rihanna is with beau Jameel. She herself is as tight-lipped about her love life as she’s ever been, which, in 2019, makes her a unicorn. But follow her actions. Listen to her words closely. She’s in a different place. In her most intimate moments, the longing for a family to call her own follows her — to repeat the blessings she grew up with and erase the generational curses she couldn’t avoid. Motherhood inspires her. “I’m not gonna be able to take my eyes off my kid,” she said last year. “I know that already about myself.”
Whenever she’s ready to tackle the topic again, whenever she’s ready to let the world in on a journey that became global fodder a decade ago, one can bet it won’t be in her Instagram comments.
Her most intimate self is revealed through music. There’s this enigmatic recklessness in her that the world clamors for. There’s something about a bad girl with good intentions. A rebel with a cause whose nearly unparalleled success still leaves her with the same insecurities, fears and desires as those who worship the ground she walks upon. Robyn Fenty’s music matters because she’s grown along with her catalog. How rare that is cannot be understated.
In Vogue’s 2018 profile, she asked, “OK, so now that I’m 30, are there things I’m supposed to do? … What do you do at 30?” We’re about to find out. And Rihanna’s never marched to the beat of her own drum. She’s the whole parade.