Rihanna’s True Musical Comeback Is Imminent, But Did She Ever Really Leave?
An omnipresent force, Rihanna has managed to be inescapable since the release of her eighth and most recent studio album Anti in 2016, while also being perpetually hounded about when her grand return to music would finally arrive. For the first few years following the record, the singer’s trajectory followed the typical path: She put out the project, promoted the singles, and went on tour. She was celebrating her strongest body of work yet and just so happened to pick up some beauty and fashion ventures along the way with the establishment of the Fenty brand, and then years went by and no follow-up album materialized.
“Balance is one of my biggest challenges and always has been,” Rihanna told Vogue last year, right around the time that she was preparing to welcome her first child to the world, a baby boy with A$AP Rocky. “Now there’s another human being coming into play, it changes what that means again. Still, I have businesses that aren’t going to run themselves.”
But in a way, Rihanna’s business as a musician has been essentially running itself for the better part of the past half-decade. Her forthcoming performance at the Super Bowl LVII halftime show will unquestionably feature hit singles from Anti and those that came before it, which made the singer one of pop music’s brightest shining stars, alongside the one-off collaborations that served as reminders of her staying power. She has remained ubiquitous even when the musical side of her career is on autopilot.
“I’m looking at my next project completely differently from the way I had wanted to put it out before,” Rihanna told Vogue. “I think this way suits me better, a lot better. It’s authentic, it’ll be fun for me, and it takes a lot of the pressure off.”
Rihanna insisted last year that the halftime show would not double as a promise for new music. But her Super Bowl appearance would be the perfect catalyst for a comeback more extravagant than the ballads she contributed to the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack last November. Ahead of the performance as we get ready for her major return to the stage, here’s a timeline of the singer’s post-Anti musical check-ins.
September 2016: Rihanna Receives the Video Vanguard Award at the MTV Video Music Awards
If it turns out that Rihanna has been bluffing, and the Super Bowl actually is preceding her official return to the album-making arena, there couldn’t have been a more full circle moment to restart the pop spectacle machine.
In September 2016, Rihanna took the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards to flip the traditional 15-minute Video Vanguard Award performance structure on its head. The singer helmed four separate performances throughout the night, her discography victory lap featuring medleys of her biggest hits.
The night’s setlist included “Don’t Stop the Music,” “Only Girl (In the World),” “We Found Love,” and “Where Have You Been” in its first set. “Rude Boy,” “What’s My Name,” and “Work” rounded out the second set followed by the third featuring “Needed Me,” “Pour it Up,” and “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Closing out the four performances, Rihanna ran through a ballad-driven section with “Stay,” “Diamonds,” and “Love on the Brain.”
February 2017: Rihanna Assists Future on “Selfish”
Future’s sixth studio album Hndrxx arrived on Feb. 24, 2017 and within four days, its Rihanna-assisted cut “Selfish” was deemed the project’s official lead single. Rather than thematically building on Future’s own auto-tuned trap releases, the record recalled the tenderness of the pair’s first collaboration: Unapologetic‘s “Loveeeeeee Song” from 2012.
April 2017: Rihanna Steals the Show on Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty”
In the music video for “Loyalty,” the second single from Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album Damn, Rihanna just giggles and looks on while the rapper throws knuckle-bruising punches in her defense. “Tell me who you’re loyal to,” she directs at the start of her verse. Clearly, like the rest of us, his answer was her.
“Loyalty” earned Rihanna her ninth Grammy Award win, this time for Best Rap/Sung Performance. The award felt, at the time, like an insufficient corrective from the Recording Academy, which nominated the singer for eight awards the prior year — including Best Urban Contemporary Album for Anti — but awarded her none.
June 2017: Rihanna Unleashes “Wild Thoughts”
When DJ Khaled flipped a sample of Carlos Santana’s hit “Maria Maria” for “Wild Thoughts,” Rihanna was the perfect artist to bring the sultry summer sound to life. Appearing alongside Bryson Tiller, the singer presented a challenge in the very first verse: “I don’t know if you could take it.” Her most successful single since going head-to-head with Drake on “Work” a year prior, “Wild Thoughts” was an early indication that Rihanna wouldn’t be more than a radio station away, even during her off-years. In February 2018, Rihanna would take the stage at the Grammy Awards for the first live performance of “Wild Thoughts.”
November 2017: Rihanna Shows Out on N.E.R.D.’s “Lemon”
N.E.R.D., the music group Pharrell Williams formed alongside Chad Hugo and Shay Haley, hadn’t released music in more than seven years when they started teasing their comeback album No One Ever Really Dies in 2017. Intent on making a grand return, the trio tapped Rihanna for the record’s first single “Lemon.”
Pharrell had originally created the song for Diddy around 2014 or 2015. “We hold onto beats that we feel like are special. It’s like wine, it only gets better with time if it’s good,” he said when the song was released. “Rih cut it, she cut the second half and it was going to be for her.” Contrasting her fast-paced verse with the song’s punk-inspired beat, Rihanna matched the energy with an attitude-spewing rap.
July 2018: A Producer Reveals Rihanna is Sitting on 500 Songs for a Secret Dancehall Album
Since 2018, rumors have been swirling around about a potential full-length dancehall album from Rihanna. Think: an entire album of “Work”-adjacent songs without Drake’s faux accent. A few months after the singer briefly mentioned the project in a Vogue interview, producers close to the project revealed to Rolling Stone that it had actually been in the works for more than a year — and in that time Rihanna had amassed around 500 songs for it.
“They’re only choosing 10 records,” one dancehall producer shared anonymously, explaining that there were multiple writers and producers in the mix. “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.”
November 2018: Rihanna Makes Trump Stop the Music With Cease-and-Desist
Rihanna knows that everyone is clinging to the crumbs of her past releases in her absence, but she wasn’t going for “Don’t Stop the Music” serving as the soundtrack to Donald Trump’s Chattanooga rally in 2018. “Me nor my people would ever be at or around one of those tragic rallies,” Rihanna tweeted ahead of the cease-and-desist Trump’s White House counsel received.
“Trump’s unauthorized use of Ms. Fenty’s music… creates a false impression that Ms. Fenty is affiliated with, connected to or otherwise associated with Trump,” the letter read. “As you are or should be aware, Ms. Fenty has not provided her consent to Mr. Trump to use her music. Such use is therefore improper.”
March 2019: Rihanna’s Deep Cut Demos Resurface on Unauthorized Album
Rihanna made a new debut on the Apple Music and iTunes charts in 2019, but not with an actual new album. That March, a project titled Angel was uploaded by a user called “Fenty Fantasia” featuring a decade worth of demos and leaks that never made their way to her official catalog. Still, in hopes that there was some truth in the music, enough people listened that the record reached Number 67 on the iTunes global albums chart.
“Due to the changes in music distribution and the technology of distribution and consumption, these kinds of leaks, whether secret or not, are far more more likely to happen than ever,” Larry Miller, director of the music business program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Music, told Rolling Stone in 2019. Fast forward four years, and now new AI technology with the ability to manipulate any singer’s voice is being used to create new songs from scratch.
May 2019: Rihanna Gives Her Dancehall Album a Placeholder Title
Nearly a year after behind-the-scenes details about Rihanna’s in-the-works dancehall record surfaced — the one she declined to comment on at the time — she offered fans a bit of hope by taking on their suggested album title as a placeholder.
“So far it’s just been R9, thanks to the Navy,” she told T Magazine. “I’m about to call it that probably, ’cause they have haunted me with this ‘R9, R9, when is R9 coming out?’ How will I accept another name after that’s been burned into my skull?”
Rihanna also clarified that Drake will not be featured on the project. “Not anytime soon, I don’t see it happening,” she shared about potentially collaborating with him again. “Not on this album, that’s for sure.”
September 2019: Rihanna Performs in Savage x Fenty Fashion Week Show
Rihanna’s fashion and beauty ventures under the Fenty brand have remained intentionally separate from her music career. However, she made a bit of an exception during the first high-scale production Savage x Fenty Show, which streamed exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. Rihanna took the stage at the event not to showcase her vocal talent, but her performance skills.
Appearing as a model and dance performer, Rihanna left the music to the talent she booked for the night: Halsey, Migos, DJ Khaled, Big Sean, Fat Joe, Fabolous, Tierra Whack, and A$AP Ferg. Since then, she has welcomed to the annual show Bad Bunny, Miguel, Ella Mai, Jazmine Sullivan, Normani, Burna Boy, Anitta, and more.
September 2019: Rihanna Performs “Lemon” at the Diamond Ball
Just a few days after her Savage x Fenty dance performance moment, Rihanna turned her mic on at the 2019 Diamond Ball, the all-star gala she had hosted annually to raise funds for her Clara Lionel Foundation. Inviting DJ Khaled, Megan Thee Stallion, and Pharrell Williams as performers, the singer popped up for the first-ever live performance of “Lemon” alongside Pharrell.
“Alright guys, all my fans, I love you — back up a little bit,” Rihanna told the fervent crowd scrambling to capture the rare appearance. “Give the girl some space.” In exchange for their cooperation, she ran through a few bars of “Lemon,” moving through the audience and onto the stage.
October 2019: Rihanna Reveals She Turned Down Super Bowl Halftime Show Offer
Rihanna recently revealed that there are 39 versions of her Super Bowl halftime show setlist. Boiling her expansive discography down for a 13-minute set is challenging enough on its own, but the singer has had some time to really think about it since this isn’t the first instance in which she’s been offered the big-time performance slot.
In a 2019 Vogue interview, Rihanna revealed that she declined an offer to perform at the Super Bowl in both 2018 and 2019 in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. “I couldn’t dare do that,” she said at the time. “For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler. There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”
Now that she’s changed her mind about what taking the halftime show stage could mean for her, Rihanna is framing the decision as an opportunity for large-scale representation. “That’s a big part of why this is important for me to do this show: representation,” she recently told Apple Music. “Representing for immigrants. Representing for Black women everywhere. That’s key for people to see the possibilities.”
She added: “It’s a long way from home, right? It’s a beautiful journey that I’m on. I could have never guessed that I would have made it here, so it’s a celebration of that. I’m really excited to have Barbados on the Super Bowl stage.”
March 2020: Rihanna Makes Rare Appearance on “Believe It” with PartyNextDoor
The list of people who have been able to snag Rihanna appearances on their songs since 2016 is short. But PartyNextDoor has a strong track record with penning hits for the singer, having helmed “Work,” “Sex With Me,” and “Wild Thoughts.” It came down to the wire, with Rihanna not sending her vocals in until just days before the song was released, but he eventually scored her first musical appearance in three years on his single “Believe It.”
Teaming up with the singer as a lead artist and not just a songwriter was key to his overarching musical mission. “It doesn’t make me happy,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016 about writing hits for other artists. “I’m looking for joy. [“Work”] is a moment for Rihanna and Drake. I want to invest time in creating moments for myself.”
April 2022: Lil Nas X Revives, Then Immediately Kills, Hope for Rihanna Collab
Rihanna was once the queen of Twitter clapbacks, but Lil Nas X has since ascended to the throne. No one has been able to wield trolling and riling fans up quite like him, so they should have known something was up when the rapper teased an appearance from Rihanna on the deluxe edition of his debut album Montero.
Not only was there not even a millisecond of Rihanna vocals waiting to be released, the deluxe version of the album didn’t exist at all. Before everyone got so excited, they should have checked the calendar. “Y’all taking these April fools jokes just a little too far,” one fan wrote on Twitter.
September 2022: Rihanna Announces Super Bowl Headlining Show
Third time’s the charm. After previously turning down two offers to perform at the Super Bowl, Rihanna gave the green light in September 2022, announcing her first live performance in over five years. The public announcement came when the singer shared a photo of just her right hand holding up a football.
Since she last turned down Super Bowl halftime offers, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation has taken over production of the Super Bowl halftime show; Rihanna has been signed to Roc Nation since 2014. Knowing the gig would get her fans’ hopes up, the singer issued a warning in an interview following the announcement: “Super Bowl is one thing. New music is another thing. Do you hear that fans?”
November 2022: Rihanna Releases First Music as a Lead Artist in Seven Years
Rihanna’s statement about the Super Bowl not being a precursor to new music was slightly misleading, because its announcement did arrive just before she would share her first two releases as a lead artist in seven years: “Born Again” and “Lift Me Up” from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
“We knew she was at a point in her life as well where she was focusing on different things — you know, focusing on business, motherhood, which is a big theme in our film,” director Ryan Coogler told The Hollywood Reporter at the time. “So we were holding out hope that maybe it could work out and, boy, did it.”
January 2023: Rihanna Up For Best Original Song at the Golden Globes, Earns First Oscars Nomination
“Lift Me Up” arrived as the first official single from the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack, while “Born Again” played during the film’s closing credits. “Lift Me Up” also earned Rihanna her first-ever Golden Globes nomination for Best Original Song.
Exactly one month after the Super Bowl, the singer will face off for Best Original Song at the 2023 Oscars. She’s nominated against Lady Gaga and Bloodpop for “Hold My Hand” from Top Gun: Maverick; Dianne Warren for “Applause” from Tell It Like a Woman; David Byrne, Son Lux, and Mitski for “This is a Life” from Everything Everywhere All at Once; and Kala Bhairava, M. M. Keeravani, and Rahul Sipligunj for “Naatu Naatu” from RRR.
January 2023: Rihanna Documentary Director Reveals Film Is Just Waiting on Her Approval
Director Peter Berg first began working on a documentary with Rihanna while she was in the process of working on Anti. First, it was slated for a 2017 release. Then, in 2018, Berg told Slash Film that the movie should be out within two months. Now, five years later, the director has said the documentary is ready to go, but they’re still waiting for the most important part: Rihanna’s approval.
“Waiting for her to approve it,” Berg told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s done and sold, and Amazon’s ready. She’s a perfectionist, so we keep adding. It’s been six and a half years of filming, so, yeah, it’s ready to come out. We’re just waiting on her to say, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be a 10-year project.”
He added that the documentary has grown over time as Rihanna has explored various endeavors outside of music. “When Rihanna asked me to make a doc, I thought she was joking,” he said. “My work tends to be a bit more masculine, at least on the surface. But this has allowed me to dip in and out of her life while I’m doing other things. I’ve loved it — watching her in the studio, seeing her turn Fenty into this billion-dollar entity and, now, being a mom. It’s such an enriching experience, I don’t really care how long it takes.”
February 2023: Rihanna Bowl
All 17 years of Rihanna’s career will be condensed into a 13-minute epic at Super Bowl LVII. During a recent press conference ahead of the performance, the singer reflected on the defining eras of her career that led her to this moment, and addressed where she might be heading next.
“It’s going to be a celebration of my catalog in the best way we could have put it together,” she told Apple Music, adding: “Musically, I’m feeling open. I’m feeling open to exploring, discovering, and creating things that are new, things that are different, things that are off — weird. Might not ever make sense to my fans. I just want to play. I want to have fun. I want to have fun with music.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone, musical director Adam Blackstone broke down his and Rihanna’s approach to crafting the perfect halftime show setlist. “Rihanna knows that her career has expanded different sonic palettes, from EDM to pop to hardcore hip-hop to ballads,” he said. “We’re coming up with the setlist together because everybody who is a Rihanna fan has their different moments of who Rihanna is to them, and what each song means to them as well. We want to try to give a little bit to everybody.”