So a superfamous pop star walks into a comedy club . . .
Actually, "walks" isn't quite right. Rihanna more glides. She slips in through the back door, GoodFellas-style, at 10 p.m. sharp, and makes a beeline for the corner table, sliding into the chocolate-leather booth in her stonewashed Lee jeans with a red cartoon heart sewn on the butt like a tattoo. Her long ombré hair is shaved on the left side, a la Skrillex, and she smells like her own perfume (her third, Nude, notes of guava and sandalwood). "Jack and ginger," she says to the waitress. "Please."
It's Friday night in West Hollywood, at the Laugh Factory on Sunset. Dane Cook is headlining; bros in untucked dress shirts are lined up around the block. Rihanna has no particular reason to be here, other than she's been working a lot and thought it might be nice to blow off some steam. Often when she wants to do that, she'll go down to Koreatown and sing karaoke with her girls, down Don Julio shots and slay "Livin' on a Prayer" or some early No Doubt. But tonight she was feeling comedy club. To be honest, she was supposed to be rehearsing for her upcoming world tour today, but she just got a new musical director, and he's still getting the band into shape, so she mainly would have just been sitting around – something the CEO of a jillion-dollar global brand does not do.
Rihanna hasn't eaten, so she leafs through the menu and settles on buffalo wings. She also asks for a side of ketchup, but the waitress frowns. "I'm sorry," she says, "but we don't have ketchup. I can bring you, like, a salsa?"
"You don't have ketchup?" Rihanna says. "That's so random!" But she's easy, so ketchupless it is. The wings appear, and she dives in. She may be a little high.
Soon it's time for the show. Onstage, one of the opening comics, a fortyish Canadian dude in a hoodie named Jeremy Hotz – one of those sad-looking journeymen who've spent the past couple of decades doing middle sets at the Omaha Funny Bone – starts complaining about L.A.'s recent cold snap. "For two fucking days we had winter!" he says. "I didn't fuckin' move here for that shit. Fuck off!"
"Yes!" Rihanna shouts enthusiastically. "I was pissed off, yo!"
Hotz doesn't seem to hear her, but he rubs his eyes for a minute like he's overwhelmed by the world, and goes on. "You ever tell yourself what to do out loud, like an asshole?" Rihanna lets out another whoop. "I do that all the time when I'm high!" she whispers. Then she scrunches up her face, pretends to concentrate. "Like, OK . . . let's see . . . perfume!"
Turns out for a star, she's a pretty great audience. She laughs at almost every punch line; a lot of times she even laughs at the setups. She likes sex jokes, body jokes, just the sound of the words "tea bag." Every once in a while she laughs so hard she has to grab something – the table, her knee, her neighbor's arm. Her biggest laugh of the night comes when another opener makes a goofy crack about his dick being the size of a Cheerio hole, and Rihanna just about dies. "Hahahahahahahaha!" she howls. "Cheerios!" She laughs so hard she literally falls out of the booth, and then spends the next minute catching her breath and wiping her eyes. Her best friend Melissa, one row up, turns and looks at her like, "Are you serious?"
Occasionally, there's some awkwardness. When Cook is onstage, he does a bit about how girls shouldn't text nude pictures of themselves, because it's classless. Rihanna doesn't laugh. (Googling will tell you why.) Later he does a bit about inappropriate uses of the word "rape" (e.g., after finishing a sandwich), and she doesn't laugh then, either. He starts one more bit by saying, "Guys, whatever you do, don't try to beat your girl—" and for a second all the air rushes from the table – but then he adds, "in a text argument," and she cracks up all over again. "Yo, this guy is the worst!" she says, delighted. "This man is horrible!"
As the set winds down, she gets up to beat the crowd. She heads for the back, where Hotz, the sad-looking Canadian, is standing there in his hoodie, hands jammed in his pockets like a 10-year-old. "Bye, thanks for coming," he mumbles shyly, looking at the floor. The biggest pop star of the decade fixes her gaze on him. "You," she tells him, "were amazing."
Outside on the street, in her spearmint blazer with shoulder pads like a free safety's, she shivers in the L.A. cold. "That was so much fun!" she says. "I had a great time." She says she's probably going to go home, try to get some rest. She climbs in the back of her chauffeured Escalade. Then she goes to a club in West Hollywood and spends the night with Chris Brown.
Every November for the past four years, Rihanna has put out a hit record. It's a new fall tradition as dependable as Thanksgiving: The leaves change, football comes back and Rihanna's album sells a million copies. Her latest, Unapologetic, was her first Number One, and it basically came together on a whim. "We didn't even plan to put out an album last year," she says a few days later. "But after about six months, I got an itch to go back to the studio. Making music is like shopping for me. Every song is like a new pair of shoes. I love these I have, these look great – but what's new?" (Says her old boss L.A. Reid: "She doesn't idle well.")
And for Rihanna, it sort of is like shopping. She assembles some of the industry's songwriting wizards (Dr. Luke here, the-Dream over there), they spend a few weeks cobbling together hits (with her or without), and she picks out her favorites and sprinkles them with Rihanna dust. Her taste is tremendous. The numbers are so huge they're almost boring: 12 Number One singles in half as many years; more digital sales than anyone in history (100 million and counting); 3.2 billion YouTube views. She conquered the zeitgeist through unstoppable force and firepower, merciless and relentless, a Top 40 Genghis Khan.
Tonight she's eating dinner at her favorite restaurant, a little family-owned Italian spot near the Pacific Coast Highway called Giorgio Baldi. She eats here probably three times a week; it would be more, but they're closed on Mondays. They always have a table for her, and Marco the waiter knows she loves Parmesan and hates truffles. She gets spaghetti with tomato sauce pretty much every time, and fried calamari to start. The sameness doesn't bother her. Once she decides she likes something, Rihanna sticks with it, even if it's not perfect. "I need to work on that," she says. "Baby steps."
Tonight she was about two hours late, which is par for the course. Marco knows this; he wouldn't even tell me the specials "because you'll a-forget them before she comes!" (Italians!) When she does walk in, wearing $700 Manolos and eau de marijuana, she looks a little tired. "My body is weird," she says, unfolding her napkin. "I wake up when the sun comes up, and it's hard for me to go to sleep. My thoughts just take over." On her way here, she took her second nap of the day.
Rihanna moved to this neighborhood a couple of months ago, and she'd be lying if she said being closer to Giorgio Baldi wasn't part of it. ("Takeout.") Before that she lived in Beverly Hills, in a house that she was never all that crazy about. "The pool was a nightmare," she says. "It had a dark-blue bottom – it looked like a lake!" Her new place has a pool too, but "regular – with a light-blue bottom."
The calamari comes, and we start discussing the Rihanna plane. Maybe you heard about the Rihanna plane: As part of the marketing campaign for Unapologetic – her seventh album – she chartered a Boeing 777 and flew to seven countries in seven days, with roughly 250 fans and reporters in tow. Everything went great for the first day or so, until the bloggers who'd come expecting a glamorous junket had to spend hours on the tarmac, denied water and a bathroom. I ask if she'd been following the drama online.
"What?" she says, like it's her first time hearing of it. "I knew a couple people got worked up, but only found out toward the end."
You didn't hear about the rest? They couldn't sleep, they didn't have food, it smelled bad . . . there was almost a riot!
"On the plane?" she says. "That's crazy!"
In that case, what was it like for her? "Oh, I had a great time," she says. "The fun never stopped for me. I enjoyed every minute of it. And it definitely brought a lot of awareness to the album – which was the whole point."
In a way, the trip mirrored a lot of her life recently: a highly bloggable PR fiasco that definitely brings a lot of awareness to the album. Topless photos on Instagram; selfies with a blunt in her mouth; flirtatious tweeting with the man who put her in the hospital. She's practically a Lena Dunham character when it comes to oversharing and questionable life choices – and even Dunham thinks she's fucking up. ("It cracks my heart in half," Dunham said of the Rihanna-Brown romance last month.) Rihanna says she called her album Unapologetic as an answer to everyone who feels this way, who thinks she should be a better role model. "I could never tell a 10-year-old to look at me," she says tonight, "because I know I'm not perfect. That's not what I signed up for."
Her mentor Jay-Z says it's all part of growing up. "She's gonna look back on some of these moments and go, 'Why did I say that?' " he says, speaking generally and not specifically. "And I think that's great. That's what life is. Go out there and make some bad choices, make some mistakes. It's much more exciting than if she was this controlled robot."
Lately her biggest provocation has been her reconciliation with Brown, which has played out in her music as well as in real life. Her video for 2011's "We Found Love" was a hard-to-watch clip that featured a Brown look-alike grabbing her face in a car; the cover for her new single "Stay" – a beautiful ballad that's also seemingly about Brown (and which, incidentally, she absolutely killed on Saturday Night Live) – shows what looks like the two of them in an intimate embrace. And then there's another new song, "Nobody's Business," a disconcertingly upbeat duet defending their relationship. In a way it's the continuation of a musical tradition that goes back to Bessie Smith 90 years ago ("I'd rather my man would hit me/Than to jump right up and quit me/'Tain't nobody's business if I do" – 1923). But Bessie Smith's evidence photo was never on TMZ.
In some ways Rihanna is older than her years, and in some ways she's much younger. She won't go in the Chateau Marmont because she's afraid of ghosts. ("You can feel it, man. It's borrowed space.") She's still learning to appreciate sushi and vegetables, and she knows exactly one sentence in a foreign language. (" 'Necesito un pene' – you can look it up later.") But she's also able to joke about herself – like when talk turns to a tabloid report claiming she'd fallen out with her friend Katy Perry over Perry's decision to date John Mayer. "Katy Perry can date anyone she wants," she says. "Besides, who the fuck am I to say anything?" She laughs. "I could never give relationship advice to anybody!"
As Marco clears the plates, Rihanna talks about her new clothing collection, debuting this month. ("It's flirty, sassy – but also simple.") She talks about all the stuff she wants to do on tour – like catching up on Breaking Bad and doing that Rosetta Stone Italian course she got two years ago. ("Things just keep coming up.") She talks about the baby present she got for Jay-Z and Beyoncé's baby, Blue Ivy – a miniature version of a jacket Rihanna wore on The X Factor – and about whether or not she wants babies of her own someday. "Hell, yeah," she says, then laughs. "But I wish I could order them."
Then the check comes.
The Pacific Palisades is one of L.A.'s toniest ZIP codes – home to Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, Tom Brady and Gisele. Rihanna's house – a big, stucco, Bond-villain-style place wedged into the side of a canyon like a slice of Trivial Pursuit pie – is one of the less discreet. Two Escalades are parked in the driveway, complete with security guards, and in the garage there's a jet-black Jeep Wrangler and a silver Porsche convertible, both presents from Jay-Z. (She hasn't driven either of them, though. She still doesn't have her license. "Things keep coming up," she says.)
Inside at the kitchen table, two of her friends and a cousin, all from Barbados, are eating Froot Loops and chatting in thick West Indian accents. They seem like the kind of girls who don't take much shit. Rihanna says she's happiest when she's with them: "Hanging out, laughing, cracking jokes, insulting the fuck out of each other." They also make her accent really come out. ("De paparazzi," "de blogs.") One of them, Melissa, has been Rihanna's BFF since they were 14 years old,when she was wearing sneakers and tomboy shorts. ("She taught me heels, makeup, did my hair, did my nails – she had titties and everything," Rihanna recalls.) But even Melissa wasn't allowed to talk to her about Brown. "I just felt like, why bother?"says Rihanna. "Nobody else is going through it. Nobody would understand."
Nearby there's a package waiting for her – a bottle of D'Ussé cognac, Jay-Z's brand, along with a note from Hov himself, his big, looping J taking up half the card. "Awww!" she says, and puts it with the rest of her liquor. Meanwhile, on the wall behind her, stretching all the way to the 14-foot ceiling, are dozens of built-in wine shelves, each of them holding an identical bottle of Charles Shaw Cabernet – a.k.a. Trader Joe's Two-Buck Chuck. Rihanna sees me eyeing them, grins, shrugs. "They came with the house."
She rummages around the kitchen for a bag of Hill's Hot Balls – a kind of spicy cheese puffs, straight from Barbados – and leads the way through the foyer, past the Roman statuary and Bob Marley photos and Swarovski crystal portrait of Marilyn Monroe. She pauses at her bedroom to grab a coat – declining to remark upon the fake, Christmas-tree-size pot plant and the throw pillow that says FUCK YOU – and heads out to the patio, where she sits by the pool. It's an ethereal light blue. We chat for a minute, and I ask where she was the other night, and she says, "Hanging out in the studio, with Chris" – casually, like it doesn't come with 20,000 pounds of baggage.
Their reunion has been a thoroughly modern one. In May 2011, they started following each other again on Twitter. Last February, on her 24th birthday, Rihanna released a remix of her song "Birthday Cake" featuring Brown, who began his verse, "Girl, I wanna fuck you right now." That August she told Oprah that she still loved Brown; in October he said in a press release that he'd broken up with his girlfriend, because "I don't want to see her hurt over my friendship with Rihanna." On Christmas Day they sat courtside at a Lakers game, and on New Year's morning, they both posted Instagrams taken from Brown's bed.
When we talked for another story two years ago, Rihanna handled the Brown situation with poise and grace. She didn't want to talk about the relationship much – "because it's not worth talking about" – but said she still cared for him and wanted him to do well. (Contrast this with Brown, who, the very next day at Good Morning America, became so enraged after questions about Rihanna that he ripped off his shirt backstage and smashed a window with a chair.) She made it clear that she didn't want to get back with him, or even talk to him – but she didn't want to stand in the way of his career.
So what changed?
Curled up outside in her giant coat, her red-and-black Reebok high-tops tucked underneath her, she seems smaller than her public self, more slight. She says she was mad at Brown for a really long time. "I wanted him to know what it felt like to lose me," she says. "To feel the consequences of that." She figured she'd never want to see him again after what he did. "So when that shit came back" – meaning love – "it hit me like a ton of bricks. Like, God, you've got to be kidding right now. But I got real with myself, and I just couldn't bury the way I felt."
She knew she'd be opening herself up to all kinds of criticism by getting back with him. "But I decided it was more important for me to be happy," she says, "and I wasn't going to let anybody's opinion get in the way of that. Even if it's a mistake, it's my mistake. After being tormented for so many years, being angry and dark, I'd rather just live my truth and take the backlash. I can handle it."
Can I be honest? I ask her. I'm not your friend. I don't pretend to know what's going on in your life. But I think, like a lot of people, when I saw the two of you getting back together, it really upset me.
She nods. She understands. "When you add up the pieces from the outside, it's not the cutest puzzle in the world. You see us walking somewhere, driving somewhere, in the studio, in the club, and you think you know. But it's different now. We don't have those types of arguments anymore. We talk about shit. We value each other. We know exactly what we have now, and we don't want to lose that."
Sure, I say. But we also see him cursing and threatening people. We see him getting pissed and breaking things. And we think, "That guy hasn't changed."
She nods again, closes her eyes. "I know it comes off like that. And it doesn't help. For a long time he was really angry, and he felt like he couldn't get away from it, no matter what he did. But there's so many reasons why I ever reconsidered having him in my life. He's not the monster everybody thinks. He's a good person. He has a fantastic heart. He's giving and loving. And he's fun to be around. That's what I love about him – he always makes me laugh. All I want to do is laugh, really – and I do that with him."
And you honestly think he's changed?
"Of course everybody has their opinion about him, because of what he's done," she says. "That will always be there. But he made a mistake, and he's paid his dues. He's paid so much. And I know that's not a place he would ever want to go back to. And sometimes people need support and encouragement, instead of ridicule and criticism and bashing."
Sure, I say. But that's not your job, right? You don't have to be the one to do that.
For the first time, she looks at me dead-on. "Wait," she says. "You think I'm here to rehabilitate Chris? No, no, no. That is not my purpose. Trust me. I could have done that from the jump if I thought that was my job. My job was to take care of myself – and I did. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think Chris was ready."
A lot of people want to believe that, I say. They're just worried about you.
"I know," she says, calmer. "And trust me – it makes me feel great to know that people care. I guess it's just something that will show with time. There's nothing I could say that would convince you right now. But we're in a great place. And I can't ever see us going back."
What if it looks like you might be?
"Listen," she says. "I'll tell you right now: I don't have to take it. If he gives me that again, here's what I give him: nothing. I just walk away. He doesn't have that luxury of fucking up again. That's just not an option. I can't say that nothing else will go wrong. But I'm pretty solid in knowing that he's disgusted by that. And I wouldn't have gone this far if I ever thought that was a possibility."
Rihanna knows what people think. That she's a statistic, she's a cliché, she's naive, she's deluded, she's a classic victim. And maybe they're right. But that doesn't mean she's a pushover, and that doesn't mean they should mistake her love for weakness. "I could never identifywith that word, 'weak,' " she says. "I couldn't have come out of this if I was weak. No way."
It's getting colder now. The sun has set. Inside the girls are still chatting, and Rihanna goes to get dressed for rehearsal.
"I know her," her mom, Monica Fenty, tells me. "I'm very proud of her. She has her head on straight. I have to let her make her decisions, and I can only sit back and hope and pray for the best. But that's something that amazes me about her: her ability to make the right decision."
A couple of days earlier, at dinner, Rihanna was talking about her old house, the one with the pool that looked like a lake, and how she knew it was time to let it go. "It was just too many problems," she said. "It had leaks. It got a lot of mold. Literally every two weeks there was something else coming up. I got so many clear signs that I was supposed to get it off my hands, and I just didn't. I didn't want to. I really loved it. I put a lot of thought into it and the design of it; I made it mine. But finally it got to the point where it wasn't livable at all, and I needed to sell it."
"That sucks," I'd said, not really thinking – it just felt like one of those things you say. But she stopped and looked at me in a way that made my throat catch.
"No," she said firmly. "It didn't suck. It was fine. Because I wanted to do it, but I didn't know if it was the right thing. But then I did, and I was like,'Yes. Good. Gone.' "
This story is from the February 14th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.