Even in absentia, Rihanna has a way of staying the center of attention.
Consider the Met Gala last May: The Barbadian superstar and mogul did not attend, for a very understandable reason (she gave birth 11 days later). But she remained the hottest topic of conversation anyway when Vogue posted a digital rendering of a marble Rihanna statue standing among the other gods and goddesses in the Metropolitan Museum’s Greco-Roman gallery.
That is what happened when Rihanna was absent from the Met Gala for a single year: A monument to missing her was commissioned. Multiply the intensity of that longing by seven to imagine the sort of withdrawal that has been afflicting the music industry for nearly a decade.
In January 2016, when Rihanna released her most recent album, the eclectic, intimate “Anti,” Barack Obama was president, Prince was still alive and TikTok did not yet exist. Rihanna, once one of pop’s most reliable hitmakers, has since been busy with three highly successful beauty and fashion companies and became, according to Forbes, the youngest self-made female billionaire. She has occasionally featured on other artists’ songs and recorded two tracks for the “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” soundtrack. But the release date of her next album has been pushed back in perpetuity.
One thing about Rihanna’s musical future is known: The nearly four-year gap between her live performances will close on Sunday when she returns to the biggest stage in music, headlining the Super Bowl halftime show at the State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Her company Savage X Fenty has sold out of special edition T-shirts reading, “Rihanna Concert Interrupted by a Football Game, Weird But Whatever.”
Rihanna, a social media natural, has been particularly adept at playing along with fans’ agonizing waiting game. Even the official teaser for her Super Bowl performance riffed on the anticipation, featuring a chorus of voices clamoring for new Rihanna music. Pining for “R9” (as her next LP is known) has gradually transformed from an earnest desire to an internet punchline to a chronic existential condition — the “Waiting for Godot” of pop music. It is this generation’s “Detox,” or “Chinese Democracy.” Members of her formidable fan base, the Rihanna Navy, have turned the phrase “where’s the album” into a meme, one that Rihanna has occasionally, winkingly participated in herself.
But the bottom line is more serious: Because of the length of Rihanna’s hiatus, the stakes for her return keep growing. For a star with 14 No. 1 tracks on Billboard’s Hot 100 — and 63 songs on the chart to date — a middling return could be tantamount to a flop.
In her time away from music, Rihanna has provided enough fan service to keep the flame glowing, without actually revealing much. Her mystique has ballooned in absentia, allowing people to project onto her seemingly contradictory ideas. She is everything to everyone, the exception to every rule.
She is often imagined as a brazen lady of leisure, thanks mostly to her aspirational Instagram account @badgalriri, and yet she has worked hard enough to become one of the wealthiest musicians in the world. It is difficult to think of a CEO with a higher cultural approval rating; in August 2021, when Forbes estimated her net worth at $1.7 billion, a headline on the website Refinery 29 declared, “Rihanna Is the Only Billionaire Allowed to Exist.”
Perhaps that’s why she has been afforded so much grace as she executed one of the sharpest about-faces in halftime memory.
In 2018, Jay-Z, the founder of Rihanna’s management company and label Roc Nation, released a song containing the lyric, “I said no to the Super Bowl/You need me, I don’t need you.” One year later, when the N.F.L. was still embroiled in controversy for its response to Colin Kaepernick’s activism, Rihanna said quite pointedly in an interview with Vogue that she, too, had turned down an offer to perform at the halftime show.
“I couldn’t dare do that,” she said. “I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler. There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”
In 2020, Roc Nation inked a partnership with the league, which granted the company influence over its high-profile halftime show. Reaction to this alliance has been mixed from the start, but the talent bookings have become more diverse and hip-hop friendly. Rihanna hasn’t addressed her reversal directly, but asked by The Associated Press why now was “the right time” to do the gig, she seemed reluctant to court controversy. “It was one of those things that, if I’m gonna leave my baby, I’m going to leave my baby for something special,” she said diplomatically. “I was willing to do it. It was now or never for me.”
It was another reminder that Rihanna has grown and changed since she last ruled the pop world. On Sunday, fans will be celebrating and reckoning with someone they may not fully know: the Rihanna of the present tense.
RIHANNA HAS BEEN pop’s poster girl of prolonged hiatus for so long that it’s easy to forget she used to be an emblem of its opposite: the grind of relentless productivity. In the eight years from 2005 to 2012, she released a staggering seven albums. All of them went at least platinum. When her saucy “S&M” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in April 2011, she set the record for the fastest solo artist to rack up 10 No. 1 singles. Only the Beatles did it quicker.
Rihanna’s talent has always been versatile, and her early success showed how nimbly she could ride the waves of pop’s sonic trends. Her voice rendered anything it sang in bold letters, which sounded great in the compressed crystal of late-aughts EDM production. She was an instinctive fit on hip-hop tracks, singing the hooks on massive hits by T.I. and Eminem, and, later, proving she had sultry musical chemistry with Drake.
After she was assaulted by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown in February 2009, Rihanna’s music got darker and more confrontational. “Rated R,” released that November, used minor chords, rock aesthetics and occasionally disturbing imagery (“Russian Roulette,” “Fire Bomb”) to paint an unsparing portrait of an abusive relationship. On that release, and her brash seventh album, “Unapologetic” — one of her best and most stylistically experimental records — Rihanna gave voice to an experience that most pop music then found too complicated and uncomfortable to address: the defiance and delusion that can make it difficult to walk away from a toxic partner.
During these challenging years, Rihanna’s voice grew into an instrument of deep pathos as she slowly learned how to lean into its limitations in a way that conveyed poignancy, resiliency and grit. There’s a palpable yearning in her delivery of the 2012 ballad “Diamonds,” as if she’s stretching for something just beyond her reach and, miraculously, grasping it at last.
When “Anti” was first released in January 2016, it was a stylistic left turn greeted with some head scratching (a note-for-note Tame Impala cover?) and a lot of headlines about how badly Tidal had botched its release. (Remember when streaming services had exclusivity windows?)
Seven years later, that has all fallen away, and its reputation has solidified as a modern pop classic, highly influential for opening the doors for major stars to make looser, stranger and more ambling records that weren’t overly retrofitted to radio play. SZA — who appears on the mood-setting opening track of “Anti” — certainly followed in its footsteps with “CTRL” and her current smash “SOS.”
But the most thrilling part of “Anti” was Rihanna’s voice, which had a new, bluesy huskiness; songs like the doo-wop-tinged “Love on the Brain” or the libidinal croak of “Higher” reveled in its raspy grain. She’d transcended the drama and placed the focus back on the music. And then, it stopped.
AT THE GOLDEN Globes last month, the host Jerrod Carmichael couldn’t help but speak to Rihanna directly when he spied her in the audience. “Rihanna, you take all the time you want on that album, girl,” he said. “Don’t let these fools on the internet pressure you into nothing.”
She was there, actually, because she did have new music — the lilting ballad “Lift Me Up” from the “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” soundtrack, nominated for original song. “Lift Me Up” is soulful, elegiac and gently haunting. It’s also an underwhelming, relatively tepid comeback. Movie theme songs don’t always knock audiences’ hair back; but for Rihanna, the expectations were high.
In its current, hypothetical state, R9 is perfect. It could be (as she hinted years ago now) an uncompromisingly sprawling reggae album. Perhaps it’s a tight, no-filler return to Rihanna’s days of aerodynamically engineered pop bangers. Maybe the guest list is stacked; maybe the album has no features at all. It’s everything to everyone, because it is not yet anything at all.
Her Super Bowl performance, too, is currently charged with a similar sense of dazzling possibility. Will Rihanna’s live comeback be a tantalizing introduction to her next era, or a nostalgic look back at her history-making hits that leaves people wanting more? All that’s left to do is, well, exactly what we’ve been doing all along: wait (a little longer) for Rihanna.
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