Rihanna ‘Talk That Talk’ Album: Experts Weigh In on Her Career
If the music industry is a machine, then Rihanna is a well-educated engineer, finely crafting a career that has taken her from a would-be pop clone to an artist etching out her own lane, controlling her sound, look and persona over the course of six years. Jay-Z once likened her to the Madonna of her generation, and with over 80 million albums and singles sold, more than 50 million fans on Facebook and legions of designers tripping over themselves to dress her, she’s well on her way to entering the prestigious club of one-named music legends.
In September 2011, while still on tour promoting her ‘Loud’ album, the 23-year-old began to work on her latest release, due today (Nov. 21), and sixth LP, ‘Talk That Talk’ — a sexier and decidedly raunchier project living between both the pop and dance worlds. The album’s lead single, ‘We Found Love,’ written by Scottish singer-songwriter Calvin Harris, is an extraordinary, albeit erratic, thumping dance track that explores a new take on love’s hangover. The single not only provided Rihanna with her 11th No. 1 single, but took her in a whole new direction.
“She’s grown from the type of artist where the label and everybody picks records for her,” vocal producer Kuk Harrell tells The BoomBox. Harrell, whose client roster includes Justin Bieber and Jennifer Lopez, produced all of the vocals for ‘Talk That Talk’ and first began working with the singer on her 2008 Grammy-winning song ‘Umbrella.’ The two have since developed a strong relationship making Harrell her go-to person whenever she’s ready to record.
“It’s a great chemistry because as a vocal producer my main thing is to have [the artist] feel comfortable and to allow them to be them before we even record anything,” he states. “They have to feel like they trust me. When she gets in the booth that’s a very vulnerable state for her. She’s going to make mistakes as we’re recording. Her tone is so distinct, she’s brilliant as an artist, she knows what’s right for her.”
Watch Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’
Over the past six years, the public has watched her transform from a shy island girl to pop princess to fashion icon, and all before the age of 25. Jay introduced a teenaged Robyn Rihanna Fenty back in 2005, during his tenure as president of Def Jam Records. Her fist single, ‘Pon De Replay,’ was an ode to her island roots and a safe track that intrigued listeners and left them wondering if the girl from Barbados could really hold her own amidst artists like Beyonce and Alicia Keys.
Null of playing any instruments, and lacking strong vocal range, Rihanna has proven herself as a force for a new generation of music enthusiasts. Yet even before stardom, the tattooed songstress was sure of the kind of artist she wanted to be. “I remember the first time I met Rihanna, she was 17 or 18,” says Yesi Ortiz, on-air personality at Los Angeles radio station Power 106. “She had that [young adult] arrogance to her. You could tell she just knew where she wanted to go.”
The public continues to be mesmerized by her transformations, both in her music and outward appearance. The start of her evolution came by way of 2007’s ‘Good Girl Gone Bad,’ those Beyonce-esque sandy brown locks were replaced with a jet-black bob and her wardrobe choices got sexier and edgier, all in one swoop. She introduced a new side of herself in a skintight black leotard, fishnets and her trusty “um-ba-rel-la” for the video to the album’s lead single, ‘Umbrella.’
“The title [‘Good Girl Gone Bad’] said it all,” adds Ortiz. “She was transitioning. We saw Rihanna to an extent grow up in the entertainment business. I think that’s what a lot of her audience gravitated towards.” Her bold fashion sense is perhaps the only rival to the success of her music, and has become a story within itself. Instead of following trends she has set them, teaming with stylist Mariel Haenn, who has helped hone in on her feminine-tomboy look.
“Her style is one of the major factors of why she’s been so successful,” says fashion reporter Nakisha Williams. “When she first came out she looked like every other girl in her category — she was very sweet and very ‘girl next door.’ She’s less concerned with people liking what she wears and getting people talking. She wants people to ‘talk that talk’ — good or bad. Once people stop talking about you, you’re off the map. Her attitude is one of her best accessories. Whatever you think about her look, she’s always going to ooze the confidence in it. That’s the thing with her, you’re looking for a production, you’re looking for [her fashion] to be part of the act. She knows what she wants to give you — edgy is the new normal.”
As her style continues to offer up a visual interpretation of the change in her sound from album to album, Rihanna has masterfully forged a hit-making dream team of writers and producers. They’re all equally important in not only pushing her to the top of the music charts, but making sure she never loses her spot. Commissioning the help of writers like The-Dream, Ester Dean and Ne-Yo, Rihanna has been able to take a driver’s seat when it comes to picking and choosing tracks that fit the theme of each album.
She has also forged personal relationships with her collaborators, which has allowed for many of them to get to know the woman behind the music. Despite switching up her sound with each project, artists like The-Dream have tapped into her creative process and brought out more of her personality when crafting records. “Rihanna’s the most dangerous one [in the music industry] in a good way,” explains Dream. “She’s completely honest, and now she’s become huge being honest, which means she’s going to be here for a long time.”
‘Talk That Talk’ promises to live up to its name, jam-packed with risque singles more about sex and less about love. “Everything since [her 2009 album] ‘Rated R’ has been ‘more abrasive’ Rihanna,” says Los Angeles Times entertainment writer Gerrick Kennedy. “She’s not whining over a relationship — she’s never been that kind of girl. She’s not looking to find the man of her dreams — that’s not in the music. She knows what she likes … if it’s whips, if it’s chains, whatever it is, she’s going to grab it, she’s going to get it. If you listen to the album, she’s talking about the things that are relevant to her.”
Watch ‘How to Dress Like Rihanna’
For the past few weeks, the ‘You Da One’ performer’s loyal Twitter followers have been hanging on to her every word, as she released promo pics and tracks from the album one by one. Among the attention grabbers are the title track, which teams her again with Jay-Z, and the sexually charged interlude ‘Birthday Cake’ — both make it clear that she’s a woman more confident than ever in her sound.
When most artists explain how they’ve changed with each new album, Rihanna lets the music speak for itself. The jury is still out on whether or not ‘Talk That Talk’ will surpass first week sales of ‘Loud,’ but her ability to remain in the public eye is sure to be the driving force in her success.
As she enters the next phase in her career, Rihanna is giving equal time to the non-musical aspects of her brand. Earlier this year, she signed with Roc Nation management, and snagged endorsement deals with Vita Coco coconut Water and Nivea skincare and released her first fragrance, Reb’l Fleur.
While the exact shelf life of an artist can never be pinpointed, Rihanna ensures she never steps too far away from the music, committing to an endless cycle of album releases and tours, only to do it all over again year after year. Exhaustion has gotten the best of her from time to time, most recently causing her to cancel a date on the international leg of her Loud tour, but she’s never down for too long.
“[She has] grown to the star we know now because of her passion and drive. She exudes it, lives it, breathes it,” says Monee Perry, Sr. Marketing Manager at Roc Nation. “The future opportunities are endless, from starring in movies, business ventures and entertaining the masses. [She] will continue to grow into the iconic status she was destined [for].”
Watch Rihanna Sessions