New Faces: Rihanna Brings Riddims

West Indian Jay-Z protegée heats up America

Rihanna
Evan Agostini/Getty Images for Tempo
Rihanna performs during a MTV Networks Tempo Channel launch event at The Plantation and Garden Theater in Barbados.
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"I don't even have time for boys!" says Rihanna, the seventeen-year-old Jay-Z protegee whose dancehall-tinged single "Pon De Replay" is lighting up both dance floors and pop radio. The Barbados native is currently preparing for full-fledged stardom while finishing high school, spending eight hours a day with a choreographer and fifteen hours a week with a tutor amid a globe-trotting performance schedule. Thankfully, Rihanna (full name: Robyn Rihanna Fenty) has the goods to back up the expectations: Her debut album, Music of the Sun (out August 30th), is a seductive mix of big-voiced R&B and souped-up island riddims – what Beyoncé might have sounded like if she had grown up in the West Indies and skipped the whole Destiny's Child thing.

"I signed her in one day," says Jay-Z. "It took me two minutes to see she was a star." After the rapper turned Def Jam president got ahold of her demo, he invited Rihanna to his office for an impromptu showcase that included an a cappella rendition of Whitney Houston's "For the Love of You." "I was in the lobby just shaking," Rihanna says. "But after the performance Jay said, 'We're interested.' By 3 a.m. the lawyers had banged out the contract."

Before she was discovered by a vacationing American producer in December 2003, Rihanna was just another beach-dwelling island girl, skipping school and absorbing a mix of calypso, reggae and American hip-hop at the clubs in her hometown of St. Michaels. Though she had won a high school talent contest with a performance of Mariah Carey's "Hero," her vocal training was limited to singing in her bedroom. "I would hold a broom like a mike stand," she says. "My neighbors would complain – they always knew when I was home."

Having left her family and friends in Barbados for suburban Connecticut and not old enough to get into most American clubs, Rihanna is impressively focused – she's taken to her studies, diving headlong into American history and recently devouring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But she was more than a little giddy when she encountered her idol. "I met Beyoncé!" she exclaims. "We hung out at [Jay-Z's] 40/40 club. She wrote me a note that said, 'When you get onstage, just let loose. Have fun. You're in control.'"

This story is from the August 25th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 981: August 25, 2005
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