Pop stars come and go. They captivate millions of fans as they ascend to the top of the charts or the box office. They bask in the glory of being the girl or guy everyone wants to be around. But often times that love fads, a new flavor of the month comes in and suddenly that entertainment god or goddess seems a bit more mortal.
That is not the case with Rihanna.
When we were introduced to bright-eyed and beautiful Barbadian Rihanna in “Pon De Replay.” It would have been easy to dismiss her as yet another pop princess whose staying power was questionable. Her voice was certainly a little different than much of the musical landscape at the time, but the pop-y hooks were not exactly revolutionary. But she continued to make music that rose on the charts and increasingly positioned herself as one of the reigning princesses of music.
But it was when she gained more creative control over her sound and music that we really began to take notice. This talented young lady was turning into a stunning woman with music to match. “Good Girl Gone Bad” wasn’t groundbreaking in its overall mission: To reinvent Rihanna into a sexier and more mature version of the artist we met on her first two albums. But her approach didn’t give us more of the same. It markedly changed her sound into one with far more substance.
While all of this was well and good and Rihanna became a household name, it was only a taste of what would ultimately make her one of the most interesting, unusual and iconic musical artists of our time. The music kept flowing and the sound kept getting stronger, but her world (and ours, by extension) were rocked when the abuse she suffered at the hands of her boyfriend Chris Brown was revealed. It was raw, it was hurtful, it was disgusting, it was uncomfortable. In a pop music world that has seen its share of controversy, it hadn’t experienced anything quite like this. The reaction and public outcry brought out the best and worst in fans (some shared nothing by love for Rihanna, others immediately ran to Brown’s defense). But, ultimately, all eyes were on Rihanna and how she would handle herself. And with all eyes on her, she handled the incident with more grace than could be expected. She refused to be a victim and didn’t let Brown dull her shine.
In the years to come, a stronger, bolder Rihanna emerged. She was a woman with a sense of self all her own and a style to match. With every new hairstyle, every red carpet appearance, every unusual clothing decision, Rihanna planted another stake in the ground on the path to becoming an icon. While style choices and daring fashion picks might seem trite in the grand scheme of things, we would strongly make the case that it is precisely Rihanna’s daring spirit and her almost devil may care attitude that really found resonance with fans. She wasn’t the perfect pop princess trying to nail the most flawless look. She wore what made her happy, be it sexy, grungy, classic, new school or anything in between. This is a woman who could easily go from old Hollywood glam on the red carpet to twerking her heart out at Barbados’ Carnival celebration, and that’s exactly what she did.
Rihanna never seems to take herself too seriously and rejoices in surprising audiences and, we think, herself. She seems very much unafraid of teetering into the bizarre or downright strange for the sake of making great music or putting her name on a product that feels special and unique to her.
And perhaps that gets to the heart of what makes Rihanna such a powerful icon today. It’s her transformative ability. For more than 10 years she has reinvented herself, time and time again, but not in a way that feels manufactured. Yes, plenty of singers go through their innocent phase, then next comes the sexy, faux-slutty X-tina-esque phase, and then comes something more mature. But Rihanna’s metamorphosis is anything but predictable. You may be confused by her at times, but you’ll never be bored by her. She is also the rare breed of performer who impeccably balances star status with a relatable sensibility. You can both imagine Rihanna making it rain in a strip club, as much as you can see her walking the red carpet at the Met Gala. She lives by her own rules and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks.
And what makes Rihanna special extends far past examples like that. It stretches into her latest venture, FentyBeauty. Rihanna has lent her name and creativity to a bevy of products and fashion collaborations (from Puma to Christian Louboutin), but FentyBeauty truly marks a stake in the ground for her. A business entirely made in her world view and one that is refreshingly diverse and inclusive. A special sect of white folks may have Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop, brown ladies have Rihanna and FentyBeauty. With rumors that FentyBeauty could extend into skincare, Rihanna looks poised to create a booming empire that will allow legions of her fans to infuse a little more RiRi into their lives.
There’s no doubt that many will argue that there are plenty of musicians who have made the same impact that Rihanna has (Queen Bey being one of them, of course). And yes, that’s true. From Beyonce to Lady Gaga there have been an abundance of powerful, beautiful women who have found this uncanny ability to become larger than life over the past several decades. But when it comes to Rihanna there’s something a little different. Something a bit more spontaneous, seemingly borderline chaotic, yet carefully calculated that makes Rihanna one of a kind and will ultimately position her as a much needed deviation from the pop norm.
What is it about Rihanna? The answer is simple: Everything.