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.
N.E.R.D.’s first single in seven years is politically charged, quoting Gloria Steinem and railing against hate over sparse, bass-heavy grooves. The group’s return, especially as a follow-up to Pharrell’s string of 2010s hits, would have been a big enough story on its own, but the real surprise was the swaggering verse by a most unexpected guest MC: Rihanna, who laid down a boasting verse packed with sly references to various hip-hop legends in a laconic flow. (The track was originally supposed to go to Sean “Diddy” Combs, but N.E.R.D. decided to keep it for themselves.) Thirteen years after her chart debut, the song became Rihanna’s 50th Top 40 hit.
“Man Down” is another Rihanna gem that resonated more with her urban R&B audience than her pop acolytes. It finds her plunging deeper into gruff patois accents than any of her singles to date, and serves as a female response to popular reggae dancehall cuts like Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote.” “The song is about breaking a man’s heart,” she told Spin. However, the controversial video for “Man Down” expanded the narrative further, depicting Rihanna as a woman who kills a man who raped her. Defending the video, Rihanna explained on the now-cancelled BET show 106 & Park, “We needed to go back to why it happened, because obviously she’s not a cold-blooded killer.”
This deliriously fun highlight from Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. finds Rihanna flowing in a melodic voice with as much panache as Kung-Fu Kenny himself. Although her rhymes are mostly nonsensical – “On your pulse like a CD in/Gas in the bitch like it’s premium,” she raps – she sounds so charismatic that it hardly matters. “I love everything about her,” Lamar told Beats 1.”Her artistry, how she represents women to not only be themselves but to express themselves the way she expresses herself through music, and how she carries herself.”
“A lot of the energy we bring is genuine,” Drake said in 2016 of his long and fruitful collaborative history with Rihanna. It sure sounded genuine on “Take Care.” The pair’s on-again, off-again relationship seemed clearly to be in “on” mode when they appeared together on the rapturously vulnerable title track from Drake’s 2011 second album. Producer Noah “40” Shebib flipped a sample of a Gil-Scott Heron remix by Jamie xx, dangling gorgeous stalactite-like guitar sounds over a slow-build Balearic throb. But the real heat comes from the chemistry of the artists at the center of this sublime musical and emotional drama, as they sing about moving beyond old heartaches to negotiate a scary new future together.
How much history can you fit into one stellar pop hit? DJ Khaled and Canadian songwriter PartyNextDoor sampled a Nineties collaboration between Wyclef Jean and Carlos Santana to create this steamy Latin-tinged jam, in which Rihanna teamed up with trap-soul singer Bryson Tiller. Unsurprisingly, she steals the show with a little old-school New York hip-hop flow (complete with a fly reference to Joe Namath’s Super Bowl champ ’68 Jets). At the 2018 Grammys, the trio deepened that Big Apple connection by performing the song with a set and costumes that alluded to the Harlem Renaissance. Khaled later recalled Facetiming with Rihanna while she recorded her vocal for the song. “She was singing the record on the phone and I was dancing on the phone, she was dancing and we was going back and forth,” he said. Pretty soon, the world would be dancing along, too.
Having co-written Rihanna’s 2006 ballad “Unfaithful” and been dubbed a “genius” by the then–19-year-old in an interview with MTV, Ne-Yo helped craft three tracks on 2007’s titanic Good Girl Gone Bad. None were as big as this Grammy-nominated gem, which updated the soul-duet ideal for the mid-2000s R&B landscape by combining breezy guitars with bittersweet harmonies. “The best way to express an emotion like love is through storytelling,” Ne-Yo told Vibe in 2008. “It makes it more, ‘I can relate to this character in this song, because I’ve been through something similar.’ … I come from a generation where saying ‘I love you’ is something you say to a girl to take her pants off. But I know the weight of those three words.” M.J.
While Geoff Mack’s 1959 outback-country song “I’ve Been Everywhere” has been covered by Johnny Cash and Kacey Musgraves, its most unexpected appearance is probably its interpolation into this Talk That Talk banger, pieced together by the album’s lead co-writer Ester Dean, the hitmaking team of Dr. Luke and Cirkut, and “We Found Love” mastermind Calvin Harris. The pleading, beat-heavy track has one of Rihanna’s more urgent lyrics, her voice bending skyward as the urgency builds into a quick-stepping refrain.
Produced by Mike Will Will Made It, “Pour It Up” finds Rihanna flexing like a boss in the strip club, tossing dollar bills at the exotic dancers. “Money make the world go round/Bandz make your girl go down,” she growls. In the process, she toys with gender roles. As is often the case for an artist whose music-video savvy rivals Madonna and Beyoncé, the song’s salacious video extends that concept into a beguiling fantasy: She plays both stripper and john, going from working a pole to twerking on top of a gold throne, all while smoking a cigar.
Rihanna’s 2007 LP Good Girl Gone Bad was such an such an enormous success thanks to “Umbrella,” “Shut Up and Drive” and “Don’t Stop The Music” that one year after it hit stores it was re-released as Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded, featuring three brand new songs. The leadoff single was “Take a Bow,” written by the Norwegian duo Stargate and Ne-Yo. It was the exact same team that created Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” and they struck gold again with “Take a Bow,” which made Billboard history by leaping from Number 53 to Number One in a single week. It was an unambiguous sign, not that anyone needed it, that Rihanna wasn’t going anywhere for a long, long time.
There was a lot of pressure in late 2009 when Rihanna dropped Rated R, her followup to the juggernaut that was Good Girl Gone Bad. For a short time it seemed like the project might underwhelm when early singles “Russian Roulette,” “Hard” and “Wait Your Turn” failed to become “Umbrella”-like mega-hits. But then in February of 2010, “Rude Boy” hit the airwaves. The dancehall song was the work of small army of songwriters, including Stargate, Ester Dean, Makeba Riddick, Rob Swire and Rihanna herself, and it quickly shot to Number One on the Hot 100 and stayed there for five straight weeks. No other song from the album was nearly as successful.
In late 2014, Rihanna posted a short video of her then-guitarist Nuno Bettencourt to Instagram; he was laying down a juicy solo over a recording of her singing “kiss it, kiss it better, baby,” sparking speculation that the star’s eighth album was, if not imminent, at least on the way. While it would be more than a year before Anti would arrive, the sinuous track – which Rihanna co-wrote with Jeff Bhasker, Glass John and Teddy “Natalia Kills” Sinclair – was one of the album’s most satisfying swerves, with Bettencourt’s power-ballad–worthy guitar line weaving in and out of dreamy, synth-y R&B and Rihanna delivering a no-nonsense, highly emotional ultimatum to a lover.
Goth Rihanna steps into the darkness with her summer-of-’08 hit “Disturbia” – a prescient sign of how twisted she could get. The lyrics could come straight from an early Black Sabbath record, yet it bumps and grinds with a beat engineered for the dance floor. Over that eerie disco chant of “bum-bum be-dum-bum-bum,” Rihanna sings about feeling her brain get consumed by paranoid hallucinations, asking, “What’s wrong with me? Why do I feel like this?” By the chorus, she’s the star of her own horror flick: “Am I scaring you tonight?/Your mind is in Disturbia!” It’s a song where staring at the phone waiting for it to ring turns into a full-blown mental breakdown. “Disturbia” was written by then-boyfriend Chris Brown, before his violently abusive side went public. But it became the most futuristic of her early hits, opening up the darker places she’d keep exploring in her music.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me,” Rihanna sings cheerily on this Number One hit, featuring distorted and bouncy electro keyboard lines and lyrics written by Ester Dean. Arriving a little over a year after former boyfriend Chris Brown’s vicious assault on her, “S&M” is a brave assertion of agency in the face of global public scrutiny. “People are going to talk about you, you can’t stop that. You just have to be super-strong and know who you are so that stuff just bounces off,” she told Spin that year. The overall theme? Rihanna does what she wants, and no one can stop her. “It’s so good being bad,” she coos. “There’s no way I’m turning back.”
Rihanna’s on-off relationship with Drake has made for rich tabloid fodder ever since the Canadian rapper added a verse to this Number One hit. “What’s My Name?” was originally cut from her 2009 album Rated R; but as his star rose, the StarGate and Kuk Harrell–produced remix of what was originally a solo Rihanna showcase eventually appeared on to 2010’s Loud. “Drake is the hottest rapper out right now and we’ve always been trying to work together,” Rihanna told Billboard that year. In fact, it’s Drake’s voice we hear after the chorus: “Yeah, I heard you good with those soft lips/Yeah, you know word of mouth.” She responds in kind: “Not everybody knows how to work my body/Knows how to make me want it/But boy you stay up on it.” It’s a whirlwind of mutual flirtation they’ve kept alive ever since.
From a pop standpoint, this non-album track was a relative failure, stalling at Number 15 on the Hot 100. But “Bitch Better Have My Money” – which reprises a phrase from AMG’s 1991 gigolo hit “Bitch Betta Have My Money” – was a huge anthem among her core R&B fans, and reasserted Rihanna’s cross-cultural appeal as well as her ability to swag as hard as anyone. “We were just vibing with [producer] Deputy in one of the local studios I record out of,” Bibi Bourelly, who conceived the song, told Noisey. “He played me [the beat], I went in and started saying something like ‘Bitch Better Have My Money!’, because I was feeling ratchet that day.” (The final version of the track credits nearly a dozen songwriters and producers, including Rihanna herself.)
In 2006, Rihanna was still a teen pop starlet finding her footing. Her first two singles – “Pon de Replay” and “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want” – along with debut album Music of the Sun were a strong but not explosive introduction to the star who would go on to break chart records for more than a decade. The “Tainted Love”-sampling dance-pop smash “SOS” would become her first Number One hit, giving a taste of her ability to dominate the clubs with shimmery, aspirational earworms.
In 2016, American audiences went crazy for Caribbean music again, and Rihanna was at the center of the trend: Her and Drake’s sinuous dancehall homage “Work” was one of the year’s defining tracks. “This song is definitely a song that represents my culture, so I had to put a little twist on my delivery,” Rihanna told Vogue in regards to the imaginative vocalese she weaves throughout the chorus. “Because I felt like if I enunciated the words too perfectly, it would just not be the same attitude or the same sass. Because that’s how we speak in the Caribbean.” Despite the song’s hypnotic and sexy vibe, the lyrics describe about a woman who’s burnt out from the “work” she has to put into a relationship. “People think that’s a party song. It’s a breakup song,” Partynextdoor, who wrote the lyrics, told RS. “It’s blues. I went from braggadocious to blues.”
By the time Rihanna released Unapologetic, ballads were hardly new territory for her. But something about her piano-driven display of utter vulnerability on “Stay” makes the song one of her most emotionally provocative performances to date. Newcomer Mikky Ekko served as the singer’s perfectly matched duet partner as they detail the two sides of a pair fighting to keep a relationship together. Co-written by Justin Parker, who was behind the similarly emotional balladry of Lana Del Rey’s early tracks like “Video Games” and “Ride,” the track finds success in its simplicity, setting the stage for her stripped-down follow-up album, Anti.
“This Is What You Came For” is the closest we’ve gotten to a Rihanna–Taylor Swift mashup. The third collaboration between Rihanna and Calvin Harris, five years after “We Found Love,” the track is a more subdued effort from the pair – thanks to softer, manipulated vocals and a blend of traditional EDM, tropical and Chicago-house elements. A “nervous” Harris played the final cut to Rihanna at Coachella 2016. “I changed so many bits from when she first heard it,” Harris said at the time. “She was into it.” Rihanna nearly got pulled into Harris’ summer 2016 beef with ex-girlfriend Swift, when it was later confirmed that she co-wrote the smash under her pseudonym Nils Sjöberg, and even sings a bit during the chorus. After it was suggested that he failed to give Swift due credit, Harris lashed out in a since-deleted Twitter rant. “I wrote the music, produced the song, arranged it and cut the vocals. And initially she wanted it kept secret, hence the pseudonym.” So much drama (none of it Rihanna’s) for such a blissed-out earworm.