In The Ones of the ‘10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
Rihanna- “Rude Boy”
HIT #1: March 27, 2010
STAYED AT #1: 5 weeks
Every so often in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, there comes an artist that not only becomes a big presence on the pop charts but practically owns the pop charts. Almost everything they put out is destined to be #1 to where they don’t even need to be at the top of their fame to get it. These artists become the dominant pop chart act of their time. For the ‘50s, it was Elvis. For the ‘60s, it was the Beatles. For the ‘70s, it was the Bee Gees. For the ‘80s, it was Michael Jackson. For the ‘90s, it was Mariah Carey. If there was an artist who’d fit that description for the 2000s and 2010s, that artist would be Rihanna.
In the 15 years since she broke out, Rihanna has amassed 14 #1 songs, 11 of those on her own and 3 as a featured artist, putting her in fourth place for the most #1 songs on the Hot 100. Only The Beatles, Mariah Carey, and Elvis Presley have more #1 songs than Rihanna. She also has 31 Top 10 hits behind only Madonna, Drake, and The Beatles for the most Top 10 hits. As I’m typing this, she’s reportedly working on her ninth album meaning Rihanna could very well continue her hit making dominance into the ‘20s.
By the time she had her first #1 song of the ‘10s with “Rude Boy,” Rihanna had already gone through a few career arcs and was just going through another one.
Born Robyn Rihanna Fenty on the Caribbean island of Barbados, Rihanna grew up in a three bedroom bungalow under a tumultuous childhood with an abusive father resulting from his alcohol and drug abuse. This would often strain her parents’ marriage leading to instances where her father would beat her mother. Rihanna would often try to intervene to stop the beatings. The turmoil of her parents’ marriage and abuse also lead to intense headaches Rihanna would suffer throughout her childhood until she was 14 and her parents finally divorced. Through this, Rihanna found solace in music despite having no formal musical training. In high school, she formed a girl group Contrast with two friends. They never performed publicly but got enough of a connection to get the attention of American record executive Evan Rogers.
During the Christmas holiday of 2003, Rogers and his wife were on their annual vacation in Barbados. At this point, Rogers had had some success in America writing and producing songs with his partner Carl Sturken, who he first met playing in a local New England R&B band in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In terms of Top 10 hits, they wrote and produced Donny Osmond’s 1989 comeback hit “Soldier Of Love,” (It peaked at #2. It’s a 5) Rhythm Syndicate’s “P.A.S.S.I.O.N.” in 1991 (It also peaked at #2. It’s a 6). and NSYNC’s “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You” in 1999 (It peaked at #8. It’s a 4.). By the early ‘00s, Rogers and Sturken branched out of writing and producing songs for artists and began searching for artists that they could develop and sign to major labels.
Rogers had become well known in Barbados that he would hear about local singers a lot. As Rogers noted, “I’ll be down at the beach and somebody will come up to me and start singing—it’s like that.” It was Rogers wife’s friend who’s fifteen year old daughter was in Contrast that told him about the group saying they were really good. On that word, Rogers arranged a meeting and audition with the girls in his hotel room. Rihanna arrived late to the audition with her looks impressing Rogers right away but immediately gathered doubt on her singing capability, “She probably can’t sing, because usually it’s the pretty one who can’t sing.”
After auditioning them together and separately, Rogers right away saw Rihanna as the breakout star, “The minute Rihanna walked into the room, it was like the other two girls didn’t exist.” After hearing her sing some more including a song he had recently written for Kelly Clarkson, Rogers offered Rihanna a deal with Syndicated Rhythm Productions and to record in America which she accepted right away though her mother wanted her to wait until the summer to record so she wouldn’t miss any school.
In the summer of 2004, Rihanna traveled with her mother to New York to record demos with Rogers and Carl Sturken that they planned to shop around to A&R department heads at various labels. It was there that they changed her name from Robyn to her middle name of Rihanna. After that summer, Rihanna returned to school in Barbados where Rogers and Sturken called her back to work on a Caribbean inflected song they had gotten called “Pon De Replay” that they both felt would help Rihanna get a record deal. Despite thinking it sounded like a nursery rhyme, Rihanna went back to New York to record her vocals before Christmas.
Rogers and Sturken sent out their Rihanna demos to various labels and got the attention of Def Jam Records and their new label head JAY-Z. After auditioning for him, Rihanna signed to a seven album record deal on the spot and got right to work on a debut album. Music of the Sun was released in August 2005 after three months of recording with “Pon De Replay,” the song Rihanna dismissed as a nursery rhyme, becoming a huge breakout hit peaking at #2 on the Hot 100 behind Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” (It’s a 7.). That success didn’t translate to the rest of the album which launched a second single, “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want,” which peaked at #36 and the album itself was a moderate seller. It was enough to worry JAY-Z who warned Rihanna along with Rogers and Sturken that they had to step up their game or else they could be over.
It didn’t take long for the second album, A Girl Like Me, to be released in April 2006, only eight months after Music Of The Sun. Hit wise it proved better giving Rihanna her first #1 hit, the synth pop sampling “SOS,” (It’s a 7.) and two more Top 10 hits, the #6 peaking ballad “Unfaithful,” (It’s a 5.) and the Sean Paul dancehall collaboration “Break It Off” which peaked at #9 (It’s a 6.). The album as a whole was still a moderate success and the differing styles of the singles made it unclear as to who Rihanna was as an artist. Was she R&B, Caribbean, hip-hop, or pop? Rihanna needed a song that would prove her critics wrong and show that she was an artist in her own right. That would come with “Umbrella.”
Originally written for Britney Spears and shopped around to other artists, Rihanna eventually took to recording “Umbrella” after hearing a demo of it. It would prove to be a hugely successful move. “Umbrella” not only became a nine week #1 on the Hot 100 but became Rihanna’s star making song helping to shed her teenage girl next door image to a more edgy, sexier image (“Umbrella” is an 8.). The Good Girl Gone Bad album “Umbrella” came from also spawned two more Top 10 hits, “Hate That I Love You” with Ne-Yo (Peaked at #7. It’s a 7. Ne-Yo will eventually appear in this column) and “Don’t Stop The Music” (Peaked at #3. It’s an 8.). The success continued with the reissue of Good Girl Gone Bad, Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded which launched two more #1 singles, “Take A Bow” (A 7.) and “Disturbia,” (An 8.) It seemed as if nothing could stop her. That is until February 2009.
While riding back from Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy party, Rihanna and her boyfriend, fellow music star Chris Brown, got into a horrific physical altercation after Rihanna had confronted Brown about a text she found on his phone from another woman. Rihanna suffered injuries ranging from two black eyes, a split lip, and bite marks all over her hands and body. Adding insult to injury, some of the photos of her injuries were leaked to the media showing her suffering all over the world. Rihanna was no longer the innocent glamorous pop star. She was now seen as a victim and it led to her and her team figuring out how to respond.
In November 2009, Rihanna released Rated R, beginning a three year period of releasing an album every year in November. The album took her towards more darker themes and sounds that furthered her bad girl image. “Rude Boy” was the fourth single issued from Rated R after the first two singles “Russian Roulette” and “Hard” with Jeezy hit the Top 10 (“Russian Roulette” peaked at #9. It’s a 5. “Hard” peaked at #8. It’s also a 5.). This was all while the third single “Wait Your Turn” failed to break the Hot 100. They needed a big pop smash. They would get it soon enough.
“Rude Boy” came out of a major writers camp, a gathering of songwriters who write songs together. These camps had become routine for Rihanna albums but this one in particular was big. Organized by Def Jam’s new head L.A. Reid, he was worried about the damage the Chris Brown incident would have on Rihanna’s career especially from her young fans. The song came from five different songwriters: Rihanna, Makeba Riddick, Rob Swire, the production duo Stargate, and Ester Dean. In John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, Dean talked about how liberating it felt writing the song for Rihanna as her church upbringing made her hold back on writing more sexually explicit lyrics.
Seabrook himself hits it exactly on the nose in how Stargate’s production pulls off the “perfect hybrid of Nordic and urban.” With the icy synth sounds, it fits in enough with the European electropop music that was dominating in 2010 while the island vibe, hard hitting beat and vocals gives it enough appeal for the urban audience. It shows Rihanna adapting to changing pop trends while also keeping her Caribbean identity and sound which goes back to the beginning with “Pon De Replay.” Hell, even the title is a Jamaican reference to a gangster boy.
It’s easy to see why Rihanna’s people wanted “Rude Boy” to be the hit. Where the other Rated R singles were dark and abrasive, “Rude Boy,” while not too far off of dark themes, essentially gives listeners more of the upbeat sounding Rihanna they had been used to. It’s an outlier from everything else. A familiar style to rope people into Rihanna amongst the darker tones of Rated R.
“Rude Boy” is a song of taking control sexually. Rihanna is telling a guy that she’ll let him have sex with her while also putting herself in control. The song doesn’t make it subtle with lines like, “Tonight I’ma give it to you harder/Tonight I’ma turn your body out,” and “I like when you tell me kiss me there/I like when you tell me move it there.” Rihanna is able to sell it well but the song just doesn’t give you much to latch onto. Also, the the repetition of “want” and boom” can get annoying. It’s an annoyingly forgettable song that exists today as a reminder of Rihanna’s hot streak of #1 hits.
With the success of “Rude Boy” and Rated R, Rihanna was able to take back the narrative of the assault as well as retain her hit making powers. She’ll be back in the column many more times.
BONUS BEATS: Had to dig to find this but here’s CollegeHumor’s parody of “Rude Boy” from the man’s perspective: