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Rihanna vs. Beyonce: Who Reigns Supreme?

As Rihanna burns up radio, Beyoncé moves in a more artistic direction. We break down the ultimate battle of the divas

December 13, 2011 11:55 AM ET
Rihanna Beyonce
Rihanna and Beyoncé
The Image Gate/Steve Granitz/WireImage

Beyoncé and Rihanna have both been recording relentlessly since they were teenagers – and have both become major worldwide pop stars on the strength of a steady flow of hits rooted in R&B and funk. Based simply on their seeming omnipresence, it would seem that both singers have had a very good 2011, but upon closer inspection, it’s clear that the two stars are at very different places in their career: While relative newcomer Rihanna, 23,  is still in the process of establishing herself as a superstar with an onslaught of singles in a bid for total radio domination, record industry veteran Beyoncé, 30, is using the clout she has accumulated over the past decade to pursue a more personal vision with her most recent material.

The result? Rihanna has appeared on eight hit singles  in 2011 alone, and her most recent smash, "We Found Love," has been at the top of Billboard's Hot 100 for six consecutive weeks. Meanwhile, Beyoncé's 4 has been considered a commerical flop despite having sold just shy of one million copies in the United States since late June.

 4 , Beyoncé's first record since dropping her father Mathew Knowles as her manager, has connected with the R&B star’s hardcore audience, but has not spawned a monster hit on the scale of, say, "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)," "Halo," "Irreplaceable" or "Crazy in Love." Her last major release, I Am...Sasha Fierce, is nearly triple platinum three years after its release in 2008; the album before that, 2006's B'Day, is certified triple platinum. To some extent, the commercial performance of 4 was diminished by the early, lukewarm response to the disc’s first single, "Run the World (Girls)," an aggressive tune that sampled Major Lazer’s club hit "Pon de Floor" and leaked in an unfinished form prior to its official release.

"Sometimes when songs aren't obvious hits it takes a video, a live performance, or something extra to help it connect to the audience," says Julie Pilat, Assistant Program Director and Music Director for KIIS FM and Program Director of 98.7FM. "Radio immediately supported Beyoncé, but there were really polarizing opinions from the listeners on the single. Her video, appearances and performances didn't kick in until it was too late and the song was over. 'The Best Thing I Never Had' was probably the most obvious single on the album, but it was a ballad and got released in the middle of summer."

The modest success of 4’s singles at radio may be a sign of the times, as the sound of pop has shifted drastically in favor of techno-oriented dance music over sounds rooted in hip-hop and R&B in recent years, a development that has dovetailed with Rihanna's gradual immersion in full-on club music. Though she began her career with roots in dancehall and R&B on songs like "Pon de Replay" and "Unfaithful," she has moved towards full-on house music with hits like "Don't Stop the Music" and "Only Girl (in the World)." Her biggest hits over the past year – "S&M," "Who’s That Chick" with techno producer David Guetta, "We Found Love" with Scottish dance producer Calvin Harris – have wholeheartedly embraced radio's current craze for dance music, which has been helped along by chart-toppers such as Lady Gaga, Black Eyed Peas and Katy Perry. (The mainstream embrace of dance music also has contributed to the genre's thriving on the touring circuit, with festival-packing artists such as Deadmau5, Skrillex and Swedish House Mafia.) Much to her credit as an artist, Beyoncé has stayed true to her roots in classic R&B and is playing to her strengths, but at least in this moment, she’s out of step with prevailing trends in pop.

Rihanna’s incredible success at pop radio, outstanding digital track sales and overwhelming popularity on YouTube isn’t simply a matter of having her finger on the pulse of popular culture. It's partly the result of unflagging momentum – there has been hardly any time since Rihanna broke big with "Umbrella" in 2007 when she has not had a hit on the radio, either as a solo act or featured artist. "Kids want new material all the time," Jay Brown, Rihanna's manager since she was a teenager, recently told the BBC. "I think you become disposable when you put out an album every three years." This philosophy goes against the grain of years of conventional wisdom cautioning artists against flooding the market with singles, but the results are undeniable: Even when Rihanna drops a single that doesn't quite connect with a larger audience, such as "Russian Roulette" or "Man Down," there has always been a monster hit like "We Found Love" just around the corner, so she always seems like a hot commodity.

NEXT: The Impact of YouTube.

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