The Ones of the ’10s: Rihanna’s “Diamonds”

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.

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Rihanna- “Diamonds”

HIT #1: December 1, 2012

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

In his book The Poetry of Pop, Adam Bradley cites Rihanna’s “Diamonds” as an example to drive his point of how pop music is another form of poetic expression. Like with poems, “Diamonds” is a song that expresses its main idea through simile and repetition that evokes a familiar feeling and melody to help appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. But as Bradley also points out, viewing pop songs as poems doesn’t automatically elevate it to higher art. All of this heavily applies to “Diamonds,” a fine forgettable shrug of a song vaguely describing a relationship with the noteworthy thing being that it was written quickly by someone who would become a big name pop star soon after the song hit #1.

By the time “Diamonds” hit #1, it had been a full year since Rihanna last hit #1 with the Calvin Harris EDM collaboration “We Found Love” and hadn’t slowed down with the hits. Talk That Talk, the album “We Found Love” came off from spawned several more Top 40 hits with “Where Have You Been” peaking the highest at #5. (It’s a 4.) As common with Rihanna at this time, she quickly followed up with another album Unapologetic in November 2012, a year after Talk That Talk. And that album spun off more charting hits including its lead single “Diamonds” which was originally not supposed to be a Rihanna song. 

“Diamonds” came out of a session between producer Benny Blanco and fellow production duo Stargate who were working on songs for Unapologetic. (Benny Blanco’s biggest hit as a lead artist, 2018’s “Eastside” with Khalid & Halsey, peaked at #9. It’s a 6.) After days of creating upbeat jams, the men decided to try something different and write what Blanco described as “a hip-hop record with some really cool chords on it… It didn’t sound Rihanna at all. We were more thinking of making a record that sounds like Kanye. Let’s make a record with a dope beat. So we did.” It was during that session when rising industry songwriter and singer Sia Furler walked in to help out with some songs with “Diamonds” being the last song worked on.

The story goes that Blanco and Stargate played Sia the track where she immediately came up with the line “shine bright like a diamond.” Sia then wrote the lyrics in about 12-14 minutes and recorded her vocals quickly before leaving. Stargate played the demo for Rihanna who immediately fell in love with the song recording it in a few days copying Sia’s voice on the demo very closely to capture the feeling. Rihanna sounded too much like Sia to the point where Sia herself had to check that it wasn’t her singing. Listening to the demo, it’s not hard to hear the similarity in their vocals. 

Hearing Sia write “Diamonds” in a very short amount of time says a lot about the song considering there’s not a whole lot to it. There’s two short verses with everything else repeating throughout. Sia has a certain element to her writing: pick a concept or image and use it to write a song around. “Diamonds” is no different from that. On paper, it’s a declaration of love with Rihanna singing about a relationship being bright like how stars shine in the sky like diamonds. Aside from that, there’s not much else to the song. It’s just Rihanna describing her relationship and how great it feels in vague descriptive lines that could have used a rewrite, “Palms rise to the universe/As we moonshine and molly/I knew that we’d become one right away.”

As a whole, “Diamonds” is a perfectly OK song. Instead of a Kanye style hip-hop track, the song is an elegant mid-tempo pop ballad complete with a thumping beat, soaring synths and strings, and glossy piano. The style is furthered by its shiny music video directed by regular Rihanna collaborator Anthony Mandler. It all sounds nice but ultimately comes across as forgettable filler and not as powerful as it thinks it is. It’s not bad but not enough to stand out and capture my attention. The same goes for Rihanna’s performance. You can tell she’s trying to put as much emotion into the song as she can largely because she’s copying another singer’s demo as closely as possible but it’s not enough to raise this song above being musical wallpaper to me. 

“Diamonds” became Rihanna’s 12th #1 hit tying her with the Supremes and Madonna for most Hot 100 #1s. Unapologetic wound up launching one more Top 10 hit: the spare ballad heavy “Stay” with Mikkey Ekko. (“Stay” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.) In a way, “Diamonds” and Unapologetic marked the end of an era in Rihanna’s career. Up to this point, Rihanna had maintained a tight schedule for releasing music putting out an album almost every year but after Unapologetic she wouldn’t release another album for over three years but kept putting out music both as a featured and lead artist. In both capacities, Rihanna will be back in this column. 

The real MVP of “Diamonds” though is easily Sia. By late 2012, Sia had begun her transformation from underground indie darling to a full on pop industry songwriter and artist. That year she had her breakthrough as an artist thanks to her singing on David Guetta’s “Titanium” which peaked at #7 as well as a guest spot on Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones” which peaked at #5. (“Titanium” is a 6. “Wild Ones” is a 5.) Sia wasn’t comfortable with this newfound spotlight and planned to stay behind the scenes for the rest of her career but the surprise success of her 2014 album 1000 Forms of Fear and its singles changed that. Sia quickly used this fame to become one of the 2010s’ most anonymous yet interesting pop stars. And with that, Sia will eventually make her appearance in this column.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2016 episode of Please Like Me where one of the characters performs “Diamonds:”

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Metallica singing along to “Diamonds” during a 2017 episode of Carpool Karaoke:

(Metallica’s highest-charting single, 1996’s “Until It Sleeps,” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.) 

THE NUMBER TWOS: Kesha’s apocalyptic electro-pop party jam “Die Young” peaked at #2 behind “Diamonds.” It’s an 8.

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