Earlier this month, Rihanna’s song “We Found Love” became her 11th single to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Barbadian singer has notched 20 top 10 pop hits in less time than any other musician, and among female solo artists, only Madonna and Mariah Carey claim more No. 1 pop singles, period; Rihanna is tied with Whitney Houston, who also had 11.* Some smashes surprise us, but “We Found Love” sounded like a No. 1 from the jump. A churning, pulsating homage to ’90s Europop in the style of Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone” or 2 Unlimited’s “Twilight Zone,” its synthesizer melody is big, brightly hued, as insistent as an alarm-clock beep and only slightly less repetitive; the beat is an unrelenting four-four pound; the vocals are airy and longing; the basic structure is a stack of frenzied crescendos with slightly less frenzied crescendos slipped in between.
The number of credited songwriters on previous Rihanna songs has cracked double digits but “We Found Love” was written and produced by just one person, the Scottish dance musician Calvin Harris. Harris, who has enjoyed solo success but nothing on this scale, contributes no vocals to “We Found Love,” but he’s credited nonetheless as a featured guest. This isn’t standard practice in pop music—particularly not with a relative unknown like Harris—but the top-line credit reflects the growing prominence, brand value, and leverage that DJs command in the dance-music-saturated pop present. It also reflects the experience of listening to the song: “We Found Love” lasts three minutes and 33 seconds, and for about one minute and 19 seconds of that time, Rihanna is fully silent. For 37 percent of the song, that is, she gets out of the way, ceding the floor to Harris’s ecstatic throb.
In a sense, getting out of the way is what Rihanna does best. There’s something paradoxical about her: She’s a pop star you almost forget is there. Her presence on songs is, at best, unobtrusive, pliant, less adaptable than compatible, like a chameleon who stays one more or less pleasing color. Extra-musically, she is blurry. Her look changes wholesale from album to album, in an undercooked way that suggests the hiring and firing of stylists rather than, say, some wry, Bowie-style persona shuffle: now she’s a stonewashed-jean Caribbean queen, now an anime fantasy, now a bondage badass, now a Candyland princess, now a ’90s London brat. There’s the nagging impression that her clothes are doing an untenable portion of her identity-building. Rihanna’s biggest headlines came not when she acted out but when she was acted against, viciously, by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown: Rated R, the noisy, brooding 2009 album she released after the attack, carried with it, for the first time in her career, a sense of drama and stakes.
Rihanna’s successes put her in rarefied company, but she is unlike her fellow chart goddesses, not in the thinness of her voice, exactly (Madonna is no great belter, either) but rather in the thinness of her persona. She is not wholly convincing. Pop stars’ songs, however gigantic, typically function as pieces of a bigger puzzle, chapters in an overarching, ever-expanding saga. Mariah, Whitney, Beyoncé, Gaga—these stars feel like stars. Rihanna feels like something else: a one hit-wonder several dozen times over.
Her breakthrough single, “Pon De Replay,” came in 2005. The song went to No. 2, but as pop-career launches go, there was something slight and inauspicious about it. Accentuating her Barbadian lilt in a way she would soon abandon, Rihanna plays a self-canceling role as a facilitator of other people’s fun: She counts, calls out dance moves, and asks the DJ repeatedly to turn up the volume. Built around a clap-happy percussion loop called the Diwali riddim, the single also inaugurated Rihanna’s careerlong habit of arriving behind trends, rather than ahead of them: Wayne Wonder and Lumidee had already had their own hits with the riddim in 2003. Other examples: Rihanna’s “Rockstar 101,” which hopped on the tired “rock star” meme three years after it had peaked with the Shop Boyz’ “Party Like a Rockstar”; “Te Amo,” which debuted on radio with a sultry Spanish hook two months after Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” had staked that turf with more verve; “California King Bed,” which brought overdriven power-ballad schlock to R&B three years after Beyoncé had done it with “If I Were a Boy.” (One big exception: Her 2007 hit “Don’t Stop the Music” got to the eurodance revival early.)