Inside Rihanna’s Upcoming Dancehall Album

Jamaican producers and songwriters have submitted “500 records” for new album that’s been more than a year in the making

For more than a year, Rihanna and her label Roc Nation have been hunting for beats as they work to complete an album devoted to exploring the singer’s Caribbean roots, according to conversations with eight sources close to the project. In addition, two of those sources suggest that the singer is simultaneously at work on another pop-oriented album.

Rihanna first mentioned the possibility of releasing a reggae-centric album publicly during a Vogue profile for the June issue, but she and her potential collaborators have been quiet ever since. The magazine suggested that Supa Dups, the veteran dancehall producer behind recent hits like Drake’s “Controlla,” was “one influence” on the album, though other details were scarce. (While Supa Dups did not respond to email requests for comment, two other sources with knowledge of Rihanna’s album confirmed the producer’s involvement.)

Along with Supa Dups, most of the biggest producers and singers connected to dancehall and reggae have submitted material for the album, including producer-writer duo R. City (Rihanna, Beyoncé), Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor (Vybz Kartel, Sean Paul), Linton “TJ Records” White (Serani, Vybz Kartel), producer-singer Ricky Blaze (Gyptian), Tyshane “Beam” Thompson (Yo Gotti, Lecrae), dancehall singer Kranium and reggae singer Chronixx. (The manager of Kranium and Chronixx declined to comment on his artists’ involvement.) According to one producer with knowledge of the album’s process, the mainstream Top 40 machine has been represented at some Rihanna sessions by superstar electronic producer Skrillex and Boi-1da (Drake, Beyoncé and Jay-Z).

“[Rihanna’s team] have, no lie, 500 records for this project [from] different producers and writers,” says one dancehall producer

A dancehall- and reggae-inflected album is not entirely out of left field for Rihanna. She has explored these sounds on 2010’s “Man Down” and 2011’s “You Da One,” while 2016’s Anti was boosted by the smash dancehall single “Work.” PARTYNEXTDOOR, a singer-songwriter of Jamaican descent who co-wrote “Work,” told Rolling Stone in 2016 that the song was not initially supposed to channel dancehall. “It was supposed to be a pop beat,” he said. “It turned into a reggae beat because I sang in patois.” But because Rihanna is from Barbados, “culturally, she got it right away,” he added.

If “Work” was a happy accident, this time around, Rihanna and her team are consciously trying to create a dancehall-influenced album. The singer has already corralled a large number of demos from top-tier Jamaican talent, often enlisting producers that have a track record of creating songs that can penetrate the American market – Blaze, for example, produced Gyptian’s 2010 hit “Hold Yuh,” while White crafted Vybz Kartel’s “Fever,” which enjoyed a crossover trajectory last summer.

It’s common for stars at Rihanna’s level to cull the best demos from reams of submissions when selecting songs for albums. “[Rihanna’s team] have, no lie, 500 records for this project [from] different producers and writers,” explains one dancehall producer who asked to remain anonymous. “They’re only choosing 10 records. They’ve been having writing camps and trying to keep them quiet for almost a year and a half now. I’ve been flying to Miami, flying to L.A., cutting records nonstop for this project.”

“If the reggae artists and producers won’t get the chance on the pop album, at least let us survive on the dancehall album,” says a second producer

“Every artist, every producer, every songwriter in Jamaica or of Jamaican descent has been working on [Rihanna’s album] and has little snippets of publishing or production credits on it,” another source close to the project says. “I think they’ve got eight songs,” he continues, “but her A&R is still asking for records.” “They’re looking for one more [song],” adds a third source with knowledge of the album-making process.

Through a rep, Rihanna declined to comment on the new album.

If Rihanna’s team likes a submission, they will do “some tweaking,” according to a second producer. “I didn’t even get the final [version of the song I turned in],” the producer adds. “I got the semi-final, and then I got the contracts. They ask my opinions, but you wouldn’t expect Rihanna to work with people that don’t do good work – they did some good work on it.”

But another producer who submitted material for the album worries the star is diluting the Caribbean aspects of the music. “Their whole thing was, ‘Yo, we’re gonna make this [album] real dancehall, [real] Caribbean,'” says the producer. “Rihanna is Bajan, so let’s make this a full project like that. To me, it hasn’t been going that way. They’re kind of mixing it up, putting in the pop. If the reggae artists and producers won’t get the chance on the pop album, at least let us survive on the dancehall album. They’re changing up the direction continuously.

But most of the singers and producers who have submitted material to Rihanna’s team believe that Jamaican music and Jamaican artists will benefit from being involved with such a high-profile release. “If the Rihanna album sells great numbers, faith will be restored in the [dancehall] genre as something to be invested in,” the second dancehall producer says.

A third producer who has “done quite a lot of stuff” for the album says labels have started reaching out to him “asking if I had any songs that [Rihanna] didn’t take.” “People are already gearing up to go in that direction [towards dancehall] because somebody as big as her is doing that,” he adds. “If an artist like Rihanna comes out and does [an album influenced by Jamaican pop], that’s definitely going to shift the needle.”