Caribbean Queen: Rihanna
''Good Girl Gone Bad'' may be the defning moment for the island born pop star
It’s shortly after 11 a.m. on the first Tuesday in June, a time when many teenagers are either sleeping in or reporting for duty at their summer jobs. For Rihanna, it’s the start of what her entourage calls ”game day.” The 19-year-old singer’s latest CD, Good Girl Gone Bad, arrived in stores this morning, kicking off what’s likely to be the most eventful summer of her life. And yet the vibe inside her dressing room on the Burbank set of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno is surprisingly chill as she gets ready to perform her No. 1 hit, ”Umbrella.” Maybe that’s because after dropping three albums in less than two years, Rihanna is finally feeling in control.
She’s been a fledgling pop star for the past two years, but now, with her third disc shaping up to be a career maker, she could hit a whole new level of celebrity. On June 13, Good Girl entered Billboard’s top 200 chart at No. 2. Two weeks earlier, the ubiquitous first single, ”Umbrella,” topped the Hot 100, Pop 100, and Hot Digital Songs charts — and set a record for digital downloads in a debut week. ”Good Girl Gone Bad is an expression of where I’m at in my life and my career,” Rihanna says. ”It’s like, ‘This is me. This is what I’m doing. I don’t care if you like it or not.’ That’s a bad girl’s attitude.”
Born Robyn Rihanna Fenty, the singer grew up working-class on the lush Caribbean island of Barbados, where her mom, Monica, is a retired accountant who co-owns a clothing boutique, and her dad, Ronald, works as a warehouse supervisor for a garment factory. She says her childhood was marred by her father’s addiction to crack cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol, which contributed to her parents’ rocky marriage. ”It’s not great memories,” she says. ”But it helped to build me and make me stronger.” (Her father has since conquered his demons.)
Instead of acting out, Rihanna turned inward and became a loner who kept her feelings bottled up. ”I wouldn’t cry. I wouldn’t get upset. It was just all in here, ” she says, pointing to her head. The stress of her parents’ marital problems took a toll on Rihanna’s health. At 8, she began suffering excruciating headaches that baffled her doctors for years. ”I had to go through a lot of CAT scans,” she says. ”They even thought it was a tumor, because it was that intense.” After years of periodic separations, her parents divorced when she was 14 — and that’s when her head stopped hurting.
Rihanna’s improved mental health helped her cope at school. ”People hated me because I’m fair in complexion,” she says. ”I had to develop a thick skin because they would call me white.” Though painfully shy, Rihanna formed a girl group with two of her classmates in her early teens. They didn’t have a name or any material, but the trio landed an audition with veteran music producer Evan Rogers (Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Milian) in 2004. ”The minute Rihanna walked into the room, it was like the other two girls didn’t exist,” says Rogers, who was vacationing in Barbados with his wife, Jackie. ”She carried herself like a star even when she was 15. But the killer was when she opened her mouth to sing [Destiny’s Child’s cover of ‘Emotion’]. She was a little rough around the edges, but she had this edge to her voice.”
Over the next year, Rihanna honed her chops under Rogers’ tutelage while she and her mom shuttled back and forth to his home in Stamford, Conn. Then, shortly after turning 16, she relocated to the U.S. and moved in with Rogers and his wife. ”When I left Barbados, I didn’t look back,” says Rihanna, who finished school with the aid of a tutor. ”I wanted to do what I had to do [to succeed], even if it meant moving to America.”
In January 2005, Rogers began shopping Rihanna’s four-song demo, which included what would become her first No. 1 hit, ”Pon de Replay.” Within weeks she inked a deal with Def Jam, which fast-tracked the August release of her debut CD, Music of the Sun. Eight months later, the label rushed out her second disc, 2006’s A Girl Like Me. Propelled by the Soft Cell-sampling smash ”SOS,” the album sold more than one million copies and yielded a second hit, the ballad ”Unfaithful.” ”She was a new artist, and we were trying to get her to as many ears as possible,” says Def Jam president and CEO Shawn ”Jay-Z” Carter of the label’s demanding agenda. Still, he admits they were working her at ”an unbelievable breakneck pace.”
During that time, Rihanna became the target of blog gossip alleging she and Jay-Z were having an affair. ”When I first got signed and went back to Barbados, people started talking about it,” she says. ”They said, ‘Oh, she must’ve slept with Jay-Z to get her deal.’ That’s where I first heard it. They talk s— about me all the time.” (For the record, she says those rumors are ”not true.”)
Fearing that Rihanna might burn out from the pressures and her grueling schedule, Jay-Z urged her to return to Barbados for a vacation this past winter. She followed his advice, but after soaking up some rays at the beach and enjoying a few home-cooked meals, she found herself itching to get back into the studio. ”That has a lot to do with my youth,” she says. ”Younger people are usually very restless and can’t keep quiet. But I am also very passionate about what I do.”
Although she had six top 10 hits under her belt, Rihanna still felt she had a lot to prove with her next CD. The sound of her first two albums had been dictated by Def Jam, along with Rogers and his production teammate Carl Sturken. For her third disc, she wanted to make an aggressive personal statement. ”I got really rebellious,” she says. ”I was being forced into a particular innocent image and I had to break away from it.”
Bolstered by the runaway success of ”Umbrella,” Rihanna is off to an auspicious start with Good Girl. With songwriting contributions from Justin Timberlake and Ne-Yo and tracks produced by Timbaland, Tricky Stewart, and Rogers and Sturken, the album is a daring emancipation proclamation, fusing ’80s pop and rock with dancehall, hip-hop, and R&B. ”She’s a young artist stepping into the adult world,” says Timberlake, who penned the lovesick ballad ”Rehab.” ”To me, that song is the bridge for her to be accepted as an adult in the music industry.”
Jay-Z likens Good Girl to Janet Jackson’s 1986 career-defining masterpiece, Control. ”She’s found her voice,” he says. ”That’s the best thing for any label — to have an artist step in and take control of their own career. She’s left the nest.”
Six months ago, Rihanna moved out of the Rogers home and into her own apartment in L.A. Is the good girl going to go bad? Rogers is confident that his protége will continue to ”represent herself with class,” but Jay-Z is all too familiar with the pitfalls of fame and fortune. ”The biggest advice I can give her is to keep her circle tight, because she can’t control anything else outside of that,” he says. ”She can’t control people’s opinion of her records or what’s being said on the blogs…. But if she has the proper friends, she won’t get caught up in the wild-child lifestyle. They will bring her back and be like, ‘You might wanna pull your skirt down.”’
These days, Rihanna’s tropical-island style and wavy brown tresses are a thing of the past. Earlier this morning, she arrived at the NBC lot dressed in black from head to toe, looking every part the Hollywood bad girl in skinny jeans, a fitted T-shirt, and towering Christian Louboutin stilettos. But the cherry on top of Rihanna’s sartorial sundae is her sleek asymmetrical haircut, which is dyed jet black, of course. It’s a symbolic reflection of her newfound autonomy. ”I always wanted to cut it,” she says, ”but I was never allowed. Now I don’t give a damn. I think every teenager has a point in their life when they go into their own world and shut out everybody’s opinion. That’s what I’m doing.” Consider it done.