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Rihanna’s Videos: The Highs and Lows

From ‘Pon de Replay’ to ‘S&M,’ the 10 videos that have defined the singer’s career

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From 'Pon de Replay' to 'S&M,' the 10 videos that have defined the singer's career

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‘Pon de Replay’ – 2005

Rihanna's debut single sees her marketed explicitly as a product of Barbados, with the vernacular in the title and the slight accent in the pronunciation. (And just in case that didn't quite translate for you, it's off the album Music of the Sun.) The idea, more or less, is a female Sean Paul; the dance club scenes in the video are meant to be immediately recognizable as not of the American variety. But Rihanna was still a work in progress: by cribbing Aaliyah's baggy-jeans-flat-stomach-bikini-top look, Rihanna confirmed she'd yet to fully formulate her own identity.

By Amos Barshad

Rihanna Opens Up Like Never Before in Rolling Stone Cover Story

Excerpts From Rihanna's Rolling Stone Cover Story

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‘SOS’ – 2006

With "SOS," the lead single from Rihanna's second album A Girl Like Me, the powers-that-be recognized the potential to break her out of the niche that had been previously established. The Soft Cell sample does the heavy lifting, and the video – a slick, bland clip reminiscent of early J. Lo – falls in line as something very much a part of the traditional pop radio product. (There's even a cell phone placement!) One miscue: capri jeans are also involved.

Video, Photos: Rihanna's Hot Rolling Stone Cover Shoot

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‘Umbrella’ – 2007

The breakout, and the first time things get a bit weird. Jay-Z moves out of the way quickly with an inconsequential opening verse, and then it's time for Rihanna to mug, aggressively. She juts her butt out towards the camera in a leather outfit, she co-opts (and improves) Britney's flesh-suit-look from the 'Toxic' video, she dances with a literal umbrella. The effects are wack, but that's one more reason to focus on our girl.

Photos: Rihanna's Best Looks

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“Disturbia” – 2008

The third single from the album cycle is when things get fully strange. "Disturbia" kicks off with Rihanna coyly asking, "What's wrong with me?", and the grainy music video footage complies with previously established creep-out imagery. We get an old-timey prisoner in an eye patch inexplicably turning gears, we get Mad Max-style back-up dancers groping in a non-fun way, we get a scary husky. And we've already come a long way from "Pon de Replay." Bonus: No sign of Shia LaBeouf.

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‘Russian Roulette’ – 2009

This is when the previously established trajectory gets skewed by Chris Brown's assault. For Rated R, her first album since the incident, Rihanna pulls the unimaginable move of leading with a ballad. The video goes through with the titular metaphor, and brings back some of "Disturbia"'s calculated oddness, mostly with totalitarian-society-looking authority figures in sunglasses. But, even with Rihanna gyrating in a padded loony-bin room, it's not in any way fun because – well, how could it be? That said: just fantastic hair in this one.

Photos: Rihanna and Chris Brown's Grammy Weekend – The Days and Hours Before the Infamous Fight

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‘Rude Boy’ – 2010

It's not by accident that this banger rehashes the simpler times of "Pon de Replay" by again referencing Rihanna's Caribbean roots: After some soul searching, it's back to the party. The video caught some flak for ripping off M.I.A.'s aesthetic, but Rihanna's take – at one point, she pretends to ride a lion, backwards – is both goofier and more full of air-humping.  

Photos: Rihanna's Best Looks

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‘Only Girl in the World’ – 2010

Bright! Happy! Sunshine! Balloons! Flowers! Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! "Only Girl in the World" led off Loud, which was marketed as even more of a return to good times for Rihanna, and therefore had to knock you over the head with the joy. The video is lush and simple: a smiley Rihanna, in cute outfits, mucking about in an unnaturally colorful field. The visual association with 1998 Cuba Gooding Jr. box office misfire What Dreams May Come was, presumably, unintentional.

Photos: Rock Stars Get Tattooed, From Rihanna to Pete Wentz

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‘What’s My Name’ – 2010

For our money, the second single off Loud is when Rihanna fully reclaims her swag post-Chris Brown. Offering the kind of mundane flirtation you never get to see in music videos – they're not at the club; they're at the corner store! – it makes effective usage of Drake, a rumored real-life love interest. His verse ("the things that we can do with 20 minutes girl," etc.) is, dare we say, legitimately sexy. Somewhat less sexy: his UMass hoodie.

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‘All of the Lights’ – 2011

Anyone could have sung this hook (and in fact did, in various leaked versions of Kanye West's track) but then you wouldn't have a reason to put Rihanna in the video. In her space-age Aeon Flux video-girl outfit – which pioneers all new ways to show off one's breasts – Rihanna is here to be really, really ridiculously good looking. The best part of this video, though, might just be the fact that it comes with an epilepsy warning.

Video, Photos: Rihanna's Hot Rolling Stone Cover Shoot

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‘S&M’ – 2011

Rihanna's latest caused a splash, supposedly being banned in 11 countries, but felt like a miscue. She humps an inflatable doll and fellates a banana, and none of it actually feels risqué at all. The motivation, though – to cast her as a commanding firebrand as a correction to the post-assault victim narrative – is understandable.

Rihanna Opens Up Like Never Before in Rolling Stone Cover Story

Excerpts From Rihanna's Rolling Stone Cover Story

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