Rihanna’s early singles are diminished by the feeling that she isn’t quite up to the material. She is incapable not only of the ferocity and lusciousness of a Mary J. Blige or a Beyoncé, but also of the icy gravitas of an Aaliyah or a Ciara. The lyrics to 2008’s “Take a Bow” describe the humiliation and dismissal of a no-good lover, but while Rihanna attempts a magnanimous sangfroid, she just comes off kind of sleepy. (Compare the song with Beyonce’s 2006 single “Irreplaceable,” which works similar ground with delicious, breezy disdain—now that’s an ass-handing.) Rihanna is unequal to the lyrical fury of “Breaking Dishes,” goofily playacting at a tantrum. On “S.O.S.” she describes an orgasmic loss of self-control without a trace of it in her delivery; the locomoting force getting us from one end of the song to the other is the prominent Soft Cell sample, not her. The automotive-themed “Shut Up and Drive” features a litany of groaners about handling her curves and piloting her “fine-tuned supersonic speed machine”—ridiculousness even R. Kelly might pass on, and Rihanna is no R. Kelly. “My engine’s ready to explode-ode-ode,” she sings on the pre-chorus, her voice, to the contrary, faint and fading. She is better when the mood is looser: Two of my favorite Rihanna songs are the horny, aggressive “Rude Boy,” from 2009 and the horny, melancholic “What’s My Name,” from 2010, both of which nod towards vaguely Caribbean rhythms and feature spry, playful vocals.
When I hear Rihanna’s greatest song, “Umbrella,” I sometimes wonder about the version another performer might have delivered. The song was first offered to Britney Spears, who passed, and it appeared destined for Mary J. Blige until Rihanna’s A&R team frantically convinced its writers, Terius “The-Dream” Nash and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, to sell it to Rihanna instead, promising to throw the label’s full weight behind the rollout of the song. The instrumental is hefty, built around crushing synthesizers and fat rock drums, and in this context Rihanna’s blankness registers, appealingly, as Borg-ish restraint—Blige, by contrast, might have brought an excess of emotion and athleticism, crowding the music and gilding the lily in a way that Rihanna doesn’t, and can’t.
What Rihanna brings to “Umbrella” is ineffable. Listen to the original demo, sung by Nash, and you see how closely she sticks to his script. There is a pained catch in her voice when she sings the word “magazines” that always struck me as a winning little flourish; it is there, as is every other last tic, in Nash’s guide track. Rihanna leans into the vocal harder on the finished song, but none of her choices are what you’d call surprising. Listen, on the other hand, to Nash’s demo for the song “1+1,” which he sold to Beyoncé, and then listen to Beyoncé’s rendition: It’s the difference between thinking about a skyscraper and standing on top of one. Beyoncé’s vocal shimmers, quavers, growls, slides deftly off beat, subtly teases the melody. (If it’s unfair to compare pretty much anyone to Beyoncé, one can consult “Saxon,” the demented demo that Nicki Minaj, who isn’t even primarily a singer, made for a never-recorded Rihanna song—it’s impossible to imagine how Rihanna could have improved upon it.)
Which raises the question of why Rihanna has scored so many hits, despite her shortcomings. Part of it is a matter of sheer volume; she has released an album every year since 2005, except for 2008, and her label devotes tremendous resources to her success: 2010’s Loud was the result of a multiweek, multistudio songwriting “camp,” in which A-list producers and lyricists were teamed up and paid to bang out potential hit after potential hit, with Rihanna holding right of first refusal over the output. This right would be worthless, of course, if she didn’t have a great ear for songs, and she does. Moreover, there is a suppleness to Rihanna’s blankness that allows her to ride shifting commercial tides with more ease and flexibility than a Beyoncé, whose aesthetic choices are held to higher standards of plausibility. (It bears noting that Beyoncé has released only four albums, but that these have sold 75 million copies worldwide; Rihanna has sold 20 million copies of her five.)
On “Don’t Stop the Music” and “Only Girl (in the World)” Rihanna returned with greater flair to the dance floor anonymity of her first single. “Only Girl,” from last year’s Loud, is a superior song, her voice skipping like a polished stone across bubbling currents of eurocheese on the verses, somersaulting into a genuine fury on the chorus, and setting the stage for “We Found Love.” With the new song, Rihanna has gone all in on the Ibiza trend. Dance music of this sort, oriented around cathedral-size clubs and face-dissolving drugs, requires that the star providing vocals subjugate herself to the sound, allow it to steamroll over her and any of the subjectivities that, in a typical pop-song dynamic, draw us closer to her, make us care about her, and so on (which is one of the big reasons why we don’t care at all about Judith Pronk, the woman who sang on “Better Off Alone”). There is something Faustian about the transaction: Your voice will be inescapable, but it could be anyone’s.
Correction, Nov. 9, 2011: This article originally stated that, with the song "We Found Love," Rihanna had released more No. 1 singles in less time than any other musician. Rather, the single makes her the fastest solo artist to notch 20 Top 10 hits. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also originally stated that Rihanna delivers a voiceover at the start of the "We Found Love" video; the voiceover is in fact performed by the model Agyness Deyn.