The astonishing story of the creation of Rihanna: a saga spanning eight years (that long!), two countries, one pink cannon, and a really quick prayer. Starting at the end. (But first: a video. And then pictures.)
Click more to read the interview.
IN THE AUDIENCE AT THE NASSAU COLISEUM, LONG ISLAND, LATE JULY
She comes onto the stage in a cage. She wears a shiny blue raincoat, a jewel-encrusted bikini peeking out of it. Tall platform heels. Her curly red wig bounces as she skips out of the cage and intimately into our lives.
We are not even properly introduced, yet her hands are everywhere.
She grabs her own radiant ass — she handles it, offers it — like it’s a rump roast. She squats and spreads her legs, settles a hand between them, where it stays. Caresses her breasts. She masturbates a dancer with the help of a cane. She pretends to go down on the keytarist.
Rihanna doesn’t really dance. She exhibits “moves,” sure. She dips. Marches. Stalks. Straddles the barrel of a giant pink cannon. Jogs occasionally. But it’s not dancing. Altogether it amounts to choreographed oozing.
She picks a member of the audience to have simulated sex with. She guides the subject over to the platform in the middle of the stage. She commands the subject to lie back. She straddles the subject. She grinds. This part is not simulated.
Madonna once did a Vegas-revue version of this show, but Rihanna is the indisputable champion of carnal pop. At this moment, in this room, she is the essence of Fuck.
Also, she sings.
It’s toward the end of the show — after “S&M,” “Disturbia,” “Only Girl (In the World),” “Run This Town,” “Skin,” and “Pon de Replay.” After “Come on, rude boy / boy is you big enough?” and “Sex in the air / I don’t care / I love the smell of it” and “I’ll tell you all the secrets / that I’m keepin’ / you can come inside” — after all that, she stops everything.
Hold up, hold up. I just want to say …
It’s a shout-out. Things get quiet.
My mom and grandma are in the house tonight.
And, uh, well… even the ten-year-olds seem puzzled.
BACKSTAGE AT THE IZOD CENTER, NEW JERSEY, A COUPLE DAYS LATER
Twenty-three years after being born poor in Barbados, eight years after being discovered there by a producer on vacation, six years after being signed by Jay-Z, two years after being savagely beaten by her former boyfriend, the asshole Chris Brown, nine months after releasing an album that has yielded three number-one singles, she emerges from the dressing room in full regalia and walks out into the big void under the stands of the Izod Center. She’s wearing the bikini. From here, about six feet away, you can see that it’s encrusted with dozens of small stones of various colors. It must weigh twenty pounds. It’s not as shiny up close. It’s chunky. It looks like a pain to wear. Like it might chafe.
She smells like coconut and vanilla. In her pink, orange, and yellow platform heels, she stands six two, easy.
She is lacquered. She glistens. She looks wet, actually. As if she’s just been dipped into the baptismal font. She wipes herself off with a paper towel. Her bodyguard watches this. And her personal assistant, Jen. And her best friend, Melissa. And her other best friend, her cousin Noella. (These three women make up the core entourage. They are with her always.) Her manager and Jay-Z’s right-hand man, Jay Brown, who has the best smile in the history of music. Her choreographer, Tanisha. Her image consultant, Ciara. Her two back-up singers. Guitar legend Nuno Bettencourt (the Nuno Bettencourt). The random assortment of people with all-access passes. Assemblages of bored men in color-coded T-shirts that say STAFF or VENDING or SECURITY. Everybody kind of looks as she wipes and preens and buffs herself to a perfect low gloss in a glorious ablution.
She sips vodka as she walks down a corridor to the back of the stage.
She says, “House.” And the lights in the stadium go off. The crowd goes batshit.
Steps in the cage.
Adjusts the bra.
Sprays her throat.
Sweet Jesus, she’s praying three seconds before she goes out there. She prays for God (a loving, generous god) to come into the place (the Izod Center) and make it amazing for herself and for the audience, who are one (kind of a Unitarian Universalist deal).
(Never fails either. No shit? Because He’s awesome. Amen.)
Say you were right underneath stage right, in the wardrobe room. The music is muffled when you’re down here; it’s like listening to a neighbor’s loud stereo. The changing area is defined only by curtains. There’s a makeup table in the room and Jen and Beth, the wardrobe assistant, and a rack containing every outfit she will wear. They look smaller on hangers.
After the third song, you look up and see Rihanna running straight for you, hauling ass in her high heels. She is running so fast that she stops herself by holding on to the railing above her head. She kicks off her one shoe and then the other. She does not talk. You do not talk. Off comes the bikini top over her head. She pulls the bottom down over her fishnets. You hand her a white leather bodysuit as the band starts in on the cover of Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” When you fumble around a bit — and why wouldn’t you fumble around a bit? — she says, in a strained whisper, “Hurry the fuck up.” She hates talking to her team like that. She feels awful about it. But sometimes she has to. That’s just the way it is. That’s what she says over dinner a few days later.
DINNER AT HER FAVORITE RESTAURANT, GIORGIO BALDI, A QUAINT ITALIAN PLACE IN SANTA MONICA, A FEW DAYS LATER
Walking into the restaurant, you want there to be a big red wig as a kind of landmark. But there is no red wig. No extensions. Nothing. Just reddish-brown, shoulder-length hair in tight curls. Her actual hair. Normal hair. It looks newly shampooed. She is very much unpainted and unlacquered, and is altogether somewhat less Rihanna than when you saw her before. A simple gray tank, white pants, heels.
She’s already eaten. There are plates of pasta everywhere. Family-style. And glasses of moscato.
Jen, Melissa, and Noella are with her, of course.
The bodyguard sits by himself at another table.
After some small talk, the entourage core decamps. They just float away. She presents a plate of gnocchi. Have some!
Corner table. Ample elbow room. Candlelight. Gnocchi — cold, but still. Moscato. Shitty Italian music at exactly the right volume. Attentive waiters. Doting restaurant owners. It’s a delight is what it is.
She could not be more focused, engaged, affable. Her posture is impeccable.
She talks about how a day on tour works, about how after she’s Skyped with her vocal coach and sucked on lozenges and steamed her voice and done her own makeup (she always does her own makeup), Jen hands her the liquor for nerves.
I have to have it. I take it very seriously, so there is a level of anxiety, always. I overthink everything when it comes to my job.
She talks about the simulated sex.
The way I pick the person is, whoever I feel doesn’t take themselves too seriously, or who I think would be majorly embarrassed about it. Like these old men… it’s hilarious.
She’s right. Come to think of it, it is hilarious.
Did you see the one who was getting way too comfortable?
I can’t remember the city, but I remember what the guy looked like.
He was just getting excited.
Like he —
We have pictures.
Which is hilarious.
She talks about the show she’s going to play in Barbados in a couple of weeks — the first show she’s ever played in her home country.
Early on in your career, you used the word hate a lot when describing the way the people of Barbados responded to your success.
I grew to realize that that hate was just pride. I realized that it’s a part of our culture. I’m always representing Barbados. All over the world, no matter what I was doing, no matter what I achieved, no matter what award it was, I always shouted them out. So, I started making them feel like, “This is our girl. If people in the UK could get this excited about her, what’s wrong with us?”
You’re the most famous person in the history of your country.
And I never turned my back, too.
Here’s the thing about Barbados. The people of Barbados had no idea who Robyn Rihanna Fenty was until 2005, when The BarbadosAdvocate told them she signed a deal with Jay-Z in the U. S. Who is Rihanna? they asked. And they really wanted to know, too. Someone spray-painted it in big letters on a wall at the University of the West Indies: wHO IS RIHANNA? No one had ever heard of her. (Even the people who knew her didn’t know what she was up to in the U. S. They thought she was visiting her grandparents in Brooklyn.) She didn’t come up like singers usually come up in Barbados. She didn’t come up as a Caribbean singer — a “soca artist.” She never wanted to be that. She wanted to be Beyoncé or Mariah from the outset. So she found herself a couple of American producers who happened to hang out in Barbados.
Picture two white guys. Now picture two white guys who used to be in a group called Rhythm Syndicate — Carl Sturken on guitar, Evan Rogers on vocals. Their big hit was “P.A.S.S.I.O.N.” (1991. YouTube it. It is remarkable.) Then Nirvana happened and they transitioned into producing… everyone: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Kelly Clarkson. If a young woman was coming up in the late ’90s and early ’00s, she took a train from Manhattan to Bronxville, New York, to work with Carl and Evan.
They’d both married Bajan (pronounced like “Cajun,” based on how the British colonists pronounced “Barbadian”) women after being stranded there once after a gig, so they were in Barbados every year. On one of these trips, Evan got a call about a girl group that wanted to audition. So Robyn Fenty and her two friends went down to the Accra Beach Hotel on the southern coast and they sang three songs. Classic story: Evan calls up only one of them and says, “You were great.” So Robyn comes back the next day by herself, straight from Combermere School (a good school for smart kids, too — one of the best on the island). She was still wearing her gray school-uniform skirt. She sang a couple more songs for him that afternoon. She didn’t have a great voice, but she had something. And whatever it was, it was effortless. So Evan asked her to come to the U. S. to work with him and Carl in Bronxville. She could live with him and his wife, Jackie, in their place in Connecticut. So she did.
Her mom was there for a week. Robyn stayed for the rest of her life. A few months in, after rehearsing in Carl and Evan’s studios in New York, they took her to Def Jam: Jay-Z and his A&R guy, Jay Brown, who didn’t let her leave the building. Signed her that very night. Sure, she turned her back. But what fifteen-year-old wouldn’t?
The part about Chris Brown is like a needle scratching across a record, even though she literally doesn’t bat an eyelash. And she doesn’t bat an eyelash because it is the most obvious subject in the world.
It’s incredible to see how he pulled out of it the way he did. Even when the world seemed like it was against him, you know? I really like the music he’s putting out. I’m a fan of his stuff. I’ve always been a fan. Obviously, I had some resentment toward him for a while, for obvious reasons. But I’ve put that behind me. It was taking up too much of my time. It was too much anger. I’m really excited to see the breakthrough he’s had in his career. I would never wish anything horrible for him. Never. I never have.
Jen sits down at the table and doesn’t say anything.
Are you here to tell us to wrap it up?
Soon, yes. It’s about to be one, and we’ve got a shoot tomorrow.
Jen doesn’t leave the table. Just sits there and looks down at her BlackBerry.
Rihanna makes a pssst sound to grab Jen’s attention. Then she jerks her head toward the entourage core’s temporary field headquarters. So Jen gets up and goes back to where she was. Like a boss. Beautiful. It’s around one.
The conversation turns to sex. (Because it’s actually the most obvious subject in the world.)
At the end of a concert, I don’t feel like I’ve been this sexy thing. Really, I don’t even think about it.
Unless it’s a song that really calls for it, like “Skin” or “S&M,” or when I cover “Darling Nikki.” There’s a section that’s called “Sex” in the show, which is the obvious section for sexuality.
There aren’t sexuality sections. The whole show is sex.
The whole show is in sections.
No, I’m saying —
I know what you’re saying.
I’m refuting what you’re saying.
But what I’m saying is —
I saw the show.
What I’m saying is, that’s the only part that’s deliberate, you know?
Like, really? Honestly, even if it comes across sexual — it has to be a part of my subconscious thought. It’s never deliberate in the rest of the show. I don’t even really… I could see “What’s My Name?” — the dancing is pretty sexy. “Rude Boy.” But I don’t know. I guess people find different things sexy.
BRIDGETOWN, BARBADOS. IN THE PRESS-BOX-TURNED-CATERING-ROOM AT KENSINGTON OVAL, THE NATIONAL CRICKET STADIUM
She’s been in Barbados for a week. As part of her duties as Barbados tourism ambassador (she recently signed a three-year contract), she danced in the final parade of the monthlong Crop Over Festival, the carnival season of Barbados. The videos of her dancing ended up on gossip sites in the U. S. (The video for “Cheers (Drink to That),” the last single off Loud, also contains footage of her dancing in the parade. It contains footage of much of what happens in Barbados.) Rihanna,one of the most successful pop singers in history, was wearing a skimpier costume than she had ever worn in public. She was dancing on a float (with Jen right next to her), drinking, occasionally jumping off the float to grind against someone. She was mocked online all over the place, but it looked like a really good time. And it was authentically Bajan.
It’s about four hours from showtime. There’s food set up in the press box.
Again, the pssst.
A kiss on one cheek. A kiss on the other cheek. No coconut. No vanilla. No heels. Almost no makeup. Her hair’s pulled back to reveal the full landscape of her forehead. She’s wearing an orange jumper. She looks sixteen.
The huge windows of the press box are covered by a shroud — black curtains that are split in a few places so you can see the field. She stands there staring into a split in the curtains. What she’s seeing is thousands of her countrymen assembled out on the pitch for her, for the first time.
The crowd is dressed up. Almost all of the women in the stadium look like they’re wearing brand-new cocktail dresses. At Rihanna shows in the U. S., nineteen-year-old girls wear matching black T-shirts that they’ve ripped and tied and bedazzled with Rihanna lyrics in puff paint: “I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it!” or “Chains and whips excite me.” Or they wear matching red wigs, just like Rihanna’s. But the Bajans look exalted.
She just stares out. She looks tentative. She asks about the mahimahi before catching an elevator to her dressing room one floor down.
THE FAMILY BOX, DURING THE SHOW
Everybody’s up here on the balcony of the building that houses the press box of the Kensington Oval. Carl’s here. Her two brothers. A multitude of cousins. Grandpa’s in town from Brooklyn, along with Grandma. And Mom.
Grandma and mom — the two women she gave a shout-out to back on Long Island. I like to say that I’m a bad bitch, she went on to say.
But they are badder bitches than me.
The ancestral bitches! The collective nod from the Long Island teenagers, the hands in the air, the approbative “Woo!” One bad bitch begat another bad bitch, who begat another. Respect.
Here in Barbados, when you get a good look at her, Rihanna’s grandma, a lovely woman, doesn’t look “bad bitch” at all.
The show is the same as any of the other Loud tour shows. The Barbados Department of Tourism wants it that way.
The only difference is this note of thanks:
I travel everywhere in the world and nothing feels like this place. And it all started two streets over from this oval where I grew up, where I was raised, right there in Westbury — singing in the shower, annoying my neighbors.
It’s true: From here, you’d just head up a couple blocks and take a left on Westbury Road. Ask anyone walking on the sidewalk, “Where’s Rihanna’s house?” Then just keep asking people. “Robyn’s my girl. I helped to raise her” you’ll get back. Zero in on a tiny house right off Westbury on one of the numbered streets, squeezed in with all the others on this narrow block, one of the poorer blocks in this middle-class country. More unlikely stories have been told, but you have to think real hard. And yeah, from the sidewalk outside her old house, you can hear anything going on in Kensington Oval.
SRP PRODUCTION STUDIOS IN BRONXVILLE, A COUPLE OF WEEKS LATER
Carl and Evan are talking Rihanna in a room filled with tons of music equipment and posters and computers and guitars and pianos. The whole place is a series of dens. Their studios are in an affluent suburb about a half-hour’s ride from Grand Central. As white as white gets. This is the first place Robyn landed when she came to the States. She rehearsed here while she lived in Connecticut with Evan. She cut her first single here. She got ready for the big meetings here.
Carl and Evan talk about her like proud parents. (They are truly the kind of strange white guys you would want taking care of your Barbadian daughter in the earliest phases of her music career.) They bring out photo albums. And there she is! Right there with Britney before she was Britney, Christina before she was Christina, Jessica before she was Jessica. Girls. Four-by-sixes in sleeves.
They show videos.
There’s her first interview on MTV’s TRL. And her first performance for MTV’s Video Music Awards, where she and her dancers are wearing carnival gear. The crowd has been supplied with small Barbadian flags.
There’s one where she’s rehearsing a ballad in the same room we’re sitting in. She sounds good. Her voice is serviceable. She cringes when she hits a wrong note. She takes direction from Carl and Evan as she’s singing. She tries out a choreographed move with her arms and laughs like she’s embarrassed, but otherwise she stands completely still. She looks like she’s auditioning for a high school play.
You wanna see the signing video? You gotta see the signing video.
The signing takes place around three in the morning, after she’s sung three songs, incorporating a little choreography that she developed on her own. We had no idea. She practiced without telling us. Carl and Evan are in the room. Lawyers for both sides. Carl and Evan sign their deal first. Then she enters the camera’s field of view. She’s wearing an outfit she bought herself. White puffy jacket. White pants. Rihanna is not yet here. She sits down as Robyn at the head of the conference table. Sixteen years old. It’s like in the movies: “And here… and right here… and if you could just sign here… and here… and initial here.” Her smile grows with each signature. Someone pulls the papers away. Then she closes her eyes and makes a fist and pulls it down and, with a smirk, whispers, Yes.