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.
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