What is to become of Rihanna?

A still from the video for 'Umbrella.' ()
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Jonathan Liu

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For those willing to pretend such a thing exists, the present century has, ten years in, produced exactly one addition to the Great American Songbook.

“Umbrella,” the 2007 single from R&B songstress Rihanna, is not the era's best top-40 opus (“Since U Been Gone,” “Ring the Alarm”), or its most definitive (“Jesus Walks,” “Rehab”). It achieves the status of standard because of its instant unremarkablility, its uncanny time- and place–lessness. “Umbrella” simply sounds as if it's always been here.

Hits arouse the consciousness while standards reorder the faculties. Of course, singing in the rain is an emancipatory, gleefully romantic thing to do. Of course, the umbrella–as–lover/keeper is a metaphor as old as the umbrella.

Already a classic—and, in the hypermodern palette, basically classical—songwriting pair, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and Terius “The-Dream” Nash rightfully enter the Book as the Rodgers and Hammerstein of “Umbrella.” Where does that leave Robyn Rihanna Fenty, the 22-year-old Barbadian who picked up the track after Britney Spears, then Mary J. Blige, inexplicably passed?

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The evolution of a pop song or a piece from a musical score to "standard" needn’t stamp out all trace of its maiden singer; Stewart and Nash were also behind “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” and when that number makes its Broadway debut in 2035, it will most assuredly be in a Beyoncé jukebox musical.

But Rihanna suffers the odd fate of seeming more or less incidental to the phenomenal success of the Rihanna oeuvre, which has accounted for more Billboard No. 1 singles since 2005 than any other artist.

Those numbers alone mean she won’t be forgotten—at the very least as camp icon. But in a quarter century, it’ll be her legacy bolstered by the connection to “Umbrella,” not the other way around, that will be remembered. As a Great American Songstress, she’s Mary Martin, not Ethel Merman.

In fact, as they unwrapped her new album Loud, which debuted this week, even the most passionate Rihanna fans—indeed, do those exist?—would concede that her defining talent is essentially curatorial. She plainly has great taste in other people’s work. Rihanna is a connoisseur of competence. So five studio albums into a breakneck career, is that all?

Yes, but not without injustice. The irony here is that Rihanna’s anonymity as pop idol doesn't come from her indifference to the provenance or politics of her hits so much as the opposite: a highly developed, basically bizarre aesthetic sense that’s been eroded by its collusion with the fickleness of pop styles. Her career looks like directionless, even craven, eclecticism.

Here's the radical contingency of post-industrial pop: Had the Britneys and Bliges not punted “Umbrella” her way, the truly quite idiosyncratic Rihanna might have matured into a sniper and soothsayer at the margins of mass music. See Björk or Kelis or, most instructively, Robyn, the former one-hit snoozer–turned–euroclash sorceress (note the similarities of hair and given name).

In other words, she might have developed a Rihanna sound—particular enough to limit its appeal, and her net worth to eight figures, and specific enough for a modicum of job security when, inevitably, a newer pop model is installed as the go-to guest-belter for Jay-Z, Eminem, and the other lions of that generation coming up on late autumn. (The name and fate of Ashanti should haunt every second of Rihanna’s REM cycle.)

Then again, she might also have found herself back in Barbados by now, serving tourists Mai Tais with parasols—which is to say, of course she had to take “Umbrella” when it was offered. But seizing that triumph as a well known but rarely thought-of teenager, her big-pond celebrity still small-fish amoebic, meant stunting and ultimately sublimating everything that hinted at a non-standard pop singer in the young Rihanna. To be sure, these hints weren’t exactly loud.

Long before her multimedia martyrdom in L’Affaire Chris Brown (her boyfriend who last year pled guilty to felony assault on her), Rihanna premiered in the tabloids as the Other, Younger Woman, said to be moving in on Beyoncé Knowles’ man and playing Eve to her Margo. A ring duly put on it, the first accusation was certified false. After “Umbrella,” with its go-for-broke softcore–CGI video and rather extraneous Jay-Z guest verse, the latter charge seemed perhaps so true that it became uncouth to level it further, and so no one did.

Yet with each intervening top-10 record that sounded nothing like the last, the wisdom of regarding Rihanna as, above all, mimic and co-opter of incipient trends became an unspoken convention.

Seeing—or rather, hearing—the injustice and the irony in all this takes a bit of counterfactual historiography. If it had in fact been Knowles or Spears or Blige who recorded “Umbrella” in 2007, the record would surely now seem a more proprietary—a less standard—piece, not least by preserving the peculiar aural signature of an instrument instantly identifiable and iconic in its own right. Beyoncé’s “Umbrella” would be soaring, melismatic, aggressively virtuosic; Britney’s, wisp-thin and breathy to the point of asthmatic; Mary J.’s, rawer, guttural, self-righteous.

The thing is, of all the ladies and all the gagas doing pop–R&B–disco, it’s almost certainly Rihanna’s voice and Rihanna’s delivery which naturally make for the most distinctive possible version of “Umbrella” (and myriad other songs besides). We may never know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine songwriters Stewart and Nash arriving at the modern scat routine “ella ella eh eh eh” in its final, off-the-wall form on their own. Those epochal, robotic syllables seem instead a direct transfiguration of the nasal, glottal Caribbean English of the first Rihanna single, “Pon de Replay.” Not iconic then and not iconic now, the singer’s inimitable Rihannan accent—elsewhere, ethnographically exaggerated when convenient; sanded to unnoticeable when not—is reduced, or elevated, to a property of the song. Every future interpreter of the standard will croak the eleven-syllable word “umbrella” precisely as Rihanna did it, paradoxically devaluing her innovation.

Which is not to suggest that a Rihanna out from under “Umbrella” would wile away her days in the raggaeton-lite of “Pon.” Left to her own devices, I suspect she’d skew much weirder, to an island roughly between Jamaica and Gary Numan, and perilously close to Bad Taste. In this sense, her true definitive singles are 2006’s “S.O.S” and 2007’s “Shut Up and Drive,” the unspeakably hokey glosses of “Tainted Love” and “Blue Monday” that offered a glimpse at unhinged Alterna-Rihanna—behind the cyborg, a good girl gone mad.

Loud might be called a 45-minute tug-of-war between inspired hokiness and bland elegance. The conflict is structural: Rihanna has reached the level of sales success that lets her record whatever she wants; that same level means anything short of mass airwave and download appeal on five continents goes down as crushing disappointment.

To the latter end are addressed “Only Girl (In the World)” and “What’s My Name?”—a one-two punch of lead singles as convincing as any in recent memory. “Girl” might be placed in a time-capsule, or the permanent collection of a natural history museum, as the specimen marked “Club Track, Circa 2010”; the sleek, propulsive co-production between Frenchman Sandy Vee and the Norwegian duo Stargate tells posterity everything we’d want them to believe about the skill of our leading beatmasters, the power of our synthesized handclaps and horns, the progress of European integration. Rihanna herself gives what could be the strongest, most full-throated performance she ever has on an up-tempo single—and so sounds like any number of competing alpha vocalists.

“What’s My Name?” offers, naturally, a stronger statement of identity. The rounded island vowels come out in force, with steel drums and other sonic returns to the Tropic of Cancer; infectious “ooh na na”s set the stage for the sweet, cooing propositions of the chorus: “Hey boy, I really wanna see / If you can go downtown with a girl like me / Hey boy, I really wanna be with you / Cause you just my type / Ooh na na na na.” It’s guest Drake, however, who lands the funniest and most oddly poignant line, maybe of the album: “The square root of 69 is 8-somethin’, right?”

The elegance gets blander and balder on tracks like break-up ballad “Fading” and get-it-on ballad “Skin.” “Fading,” especially, involves some fancy voice work, and here a surprising thing happens: Rihanna struggles, straining to hit the high notes and maintain her breath during the song’s delicate pre-choruses. Of course, in the AutoTune age, the presence of imperfection in recorded music is always an intentioned act, and perhaps the point is to show Rihanna maturing into a full-fledged vocal-R&B diva.

Which finally gets to the crux of her idiosyncrasy, typically papered over with platinum: she’s technically and morally ambivalent about being a Beyoncéan diva; Rihanna actually, literally wants to be a rock star and, more than that, a rock singer.

She will be frustrated. The video for “Rock Star 101,” from last year’s Rated R, had Rihanna playacting as front-woman in a metal outfit co-starring Slash; she’s never looked better. Still, the effect was of Debbie Harry strutting and rhyming in the “Rapture” video—that is, rock is quite possibly as peripheral to the top of the pops today as rap was in 1980. Just as Blondie couldn’t turn into a hip-hop group and remain Blondie, so Rihanna won’t ever be a rock singer, not really.

But it is her rather transgressive fetish for various rock bombasts that gives Loud its heart, as well as its hokeyness. “Cheers (Drink To That)” is a bar anthem punctuated with otherworldly yelps that suggest Rihanna’s laryngeal kinship with The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan runs deeper than the “Zombie”-like “eh eh ehs” of “Umbrella.” Meanwhile, the lovers’ scorn of “Complicated” unfolds like Tori Amos over an electropop beat. And about a third of the way through, “California King Bed” morphs into an honest hair-metal power ballad: “In this California king bed,” soars the chorus, louder every time, “We’re ten-thousand miles apart!” An extended guitar solo closes out the track; unexpected axe-shredding cuts in, by my count, at least three separate times on Loud.

It will take some time for Rihanna to figure all this out, and it's worth figuring out, for her and for her listeners, too.