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Rihanna’s 30 Greatest Songs, Ranked

From “Pon de Replay” to “Umbrella”

Rihanna’s tossed-off vibe and DGAF openness disguise both her musical gifts and remarkable work ethic, borne out in a cascade of hits. Who knew that the young Barbadian singer behind 2005’s “Pon de Replay” would eventually sell more digital singles than any other artist (100 million–plus)? Or that she trails only Elvis, the Beatles and Madonna in Top 10s? Here, in honor of the star’s 30th birthday, we wade through that robust, history-making catalog, taking stock of her best tracks to date.

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11

“All of the Lights” (with Kanye West, Kid Cudi) (2010)

Kanye West’s grandiose My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy cut features an all-star choir that includes the likes of Elton John, John Legend and Drake – but only Rihanna ranked as a featured vocalist, thanks to her smoldering performance of the track’s anthemic chorus. Her appearance stemmed from a late-night summoning to the studio: “[Kanye] actually played his album to me, like, three months ago, and ‘All of the Lights,’ that was one of my favorite songs,” Rihanna told MTV in 2010, shortly after the song leaked online in advance of Fantasy‘s release. “So when he asked me to come up to the studio at 2 o’clock in the morning, I had to, because I loved it. I knew it was that song.”

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10

“Needed Me” (2016)

If anyone was still in doubt about Ms. Fenty’s zero-tolerance policy toward the male of the species, “Needed Me” set them straight – it’s the coldest, toughest, meanest of her sexual unfollows. You might have to go back to vintage Mick Jagger to find an erotic conquistador this ruthless, as she mocks a jilted fling for being dumb enough to fall in love with her, “trying to fix your inner issues with a bad bitch.” While DJ Mustard pumps up the hardest of West Coast hip-hop bass, Ri asks her latest victim, “Didn’t they tell you I was a savage?/Fuck your white horse and your carriage.” Harmony Korine directed the controversial (and definitely NSFW) video, where Rihanna struts into a strip club to face the thug who made the mistake of pissing her off. He tosses her a wad of Benjamins; she makes it rain bullets. Not her first man-killing video, and probably not her last.

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9

“Don’t Stop the Music” (2007)

It’s a global dance-pop smash, produced by a couple Norwegian guys (Stargate) that hits a high point referencing a historic vocal line from a 1983 Michael Jackson classic (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”) that was itself a reference to an early-Seventies jam from Cameroon (Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa”). In other words, classic Rihanna: effortlessly gathering the whole world into her vision of sweat-caked, face-to-face, hands-on-your-waist disco elation. She asked Jackson’s permission to borrow the iconic “Mama-say, mama-sa, ma-ma-ko-ssa” hook for “Don’t Stop the Music” and the resulting song ended up being a massive global hit, with a video in which RiRi breaks through a secret door in the back of a candy store into a crazy club where she shakes her stress away.

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8

“Pon de Replay” (2005)

If you heard Rihanna’s debut single in 2005, you’re forgiven for initially dismissing her as part of a Caribbean-tinged pop wave that included Lumidee’s “Never Leave You (Uh Ooh, Uh Ooh)” (which, like “Pon de Replay,” also relied on Lenky Marsden’s Diwali riddim) and Nina Sky’s “Move Your Body.” Originating as an Evan Rogers–produced demo that secured the teenage Rihanna’s deal with Def Jam, the track offered some evidence that the Barbados-born singer might end up outpacing her contemporaries. Her voice sounds distinctively bright and confident – check out the way she chants “everybody run” on the verses, then shifts to flat-out singing near the track’s end – and her unique tone already stood out. That year, she told MTV News, “I can’t tell you where I’ll see myself in five years, but I can tell you I will work my best to be the most successful artist that I can be.”

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7

“Love the Way You Lie” (with Eminem) (2010)

Rihanna spent years addressing her abusive, tempestuous relationship with Chris Brown through her music, but it was her Eminem collaboration “Love the Way You Lie” that became her most provocative statement in the aftermath. Detailing the love-hate games that lock people into various forms of abusive romantic partnerships, Eminem and Rihanna give brazen performances as lovers scorned and burned by their own mix of fear and stubbornness. Rihanna would release a solo take on the song, “Love the Way You Lie (Part II),” that offered an even more vulnerable take on the song’s message.

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6

“Only Girl (in the World)” (2010)

“Only Girl (in The World)” was one of four Number Ones Rihanna scored in 2010 (the others being “Rude Boy,” “What’s My Name” and Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie”). But with producers StarGate, Sandy Vee and Kuk Harrell’s Europop keyboard lines and stomping progressive house beat, this was arguably the single that certified Rihanna as the queen of the EDM era. She stretches her voice an octave or two to match the soaring production and depicts a deliriously enticing nightlife scene: This girl is with you, and she wants to be your only one. Yet it’s her unique Barbadian lilt that makes her more than an anonymous club queen, and that personality isn’t buried by this intentionally histrionic, over-the-top Electric Daisy Carnival hit.

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5

“Diamonds” (2012)

Rihanna’s greatest attribute has long been her adaptability: She can swagger and belt her way through any EDM, R&B or rap song while making it entirely her own. After a series of club hits, she switched gears with this luscious, opulent Sia-penned power ballad. On the track, which would become her 12th Number One, Rih showed off her often underrated vocal abilities that had frequently been overpowered by booming, ornate EDM production. “Diamonds” still stands as one of her most stirring and uplifting hits. 

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4

“FourFiveSeconds” (with Paul McCartney, Kanye West) (2015)

In the Eighties, Paul McCartney introduced himself to a whole new generation of fans by duetting with Michael Jackson on “Say Say Say.” He wouldn’t pull another cross-generational stunt like that with any real success until 2015 when he found himself collaborating with Rihanna and Kanye West on “FourFiveSeconds.” Kanye spearheaded the unlikely project since he was working with Rihanna on her new album Anti and had developed a friendship with McCartney, teaming up with him on the 2014 track “Only One.” Built around Paul’s acoustic guitar lick, “FourFiveSeconds” is unlike anything in the catalogs of either Rihanna or Macca. It gave the former Beatle his first Top Five hit in 31 years. He continues to play it at all of his solo shows. 

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3

“Love on the Brain” (2016)

“I think a lot of people have a misperception of me,” Rihanna told Kanye West in a 2010 chat for Interview. “They only see the tough, defensive, aggressive side. But every woman is vulnerable. They have vulnerability. So of course I’m going to have that side.” Anti featured multiple instances of her at her most vulnerable, but none tore the house down more than this neoclassic soul track, in which she alternates between her falsetto and torch-singer range over a deliberate, slow-dance–ready arrangement. “We wanted the song to be old school ­– a mix between Prince and Al Green,” co-writer Fred Ball told Genius. “We wanted it to have that juxtaposition of an old-school soul feel with modern lyrics.” Ball and co-writer Joseph Angel didn’t write the track with Rih in mind, but it wound up fitting in perfectly with Anti’s tender side.

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2

“Umbrella” (feat. Jay-Z) (2007)

Thank Britney Spears for the song that changed everything for Rihanna: The “Toxic” singer’s label turned down what would become a megahit for the Barbadian star, transforming her into a full-fledged pop heavyweight. Co-written by Tricky Stewart, Kuk Harrell and The-Dream, the song is a unique piece of music: a song that marries a heavy rock undercurrent to vibrant rhythm guitar and a perfectly catchy R&B-pop hook. The song ended up being Rihanna’s first Grammy win and a Number One hit in many countries — but at a price. Many claimed there was a “Rihanna curse” as the U.K., New Zealand and Romania were hit with heavy storms as soon as the single topped the charts in each country.

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1

“We Found Love” (feat. Calvin Harris) (2010)

The original Calvin Harris demo for this rave epic floated around for months: Leona Lewis recorded a version but didn’t release it, and Nicole Scherzinger rejected it, before Rihanna turned it into a global phenomenon that topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks. “I slept on it,” Scherzinger admitted to U.K. magazine Notion in 2013. But in all fairness to the former Pussycat Doll, no one could have brought the same Technicolor joie de vivre to this big room extravaganza as Rihanna, whose near-falsetto voice summons peak-time memories on the dance floor. The chorus – “We found love in a hopeless place” – got a literal interpretation in Melina Matsuoka’s controversial video, which found Rihanna lost in a tumultuous and toxic relationship.

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