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How Rihanna Took Control Of Her Career

Photo: GETTY
When she snarled, "That Rihanna reign just won't let up," on her 2009 single "Hard," it seemed like a typical piece of pretty hollow pop star bravado. But seven years later, that Rihanna reign still hasn't let up and actually, it feels stronger than ever. This year she's dropped the coolest album of her career, Anti, while setting off on a massive world tour that included last Friday's show at London's iconic Wembley Stadium. She's also found time to record "Sledgehammer," a brand new track for the Star Trek Beyond soundtrack, and reunited with Calvin Harris for the dance smash "This Is What You Came For."

Though she remains at the forefront of youth culture, putting her name to a signature range of Puma trainers as well as collaborating with high-end brands like Dior and Manolo Blahnik, it's strange in a way to think that Rihanna is still only 28. She already has more U.S. number one hits that any artist bar The Beatles and Mariah Carey. And she's racked up those smashes while cultivating a persona, relatable but super-glamorous, that no other household name really has. On the one hand, you can imagine spending an afternoon down the pub with RiRi, shooting pool and doing shots, but at the same time, you'd lose your shit if you spotted her buying hummus at Tesco Metro.

Over the last couple of years, it's also felt as though Rihanna has grasped control of her career to a greater extent than ever before. Between 2005 and 2012, she released seven albums in eight years, taking on a workload more onerous than perhaps any other top-tier pop star. But then, well, she really made us wait for Anti, which finally dropped this January, three months after she'd announced the world tour of the same name. "Announcing the tour before the album was a bold move," says BBC Radio 1's Clara Amfo, who's followed Rihanna's career closely from the start. "But I think she's at that point now where her singles don't have to chart super-well for her to stay relevant. Because she's just everywhere. And watching her on stage, you can just tell she feels really free now."

Singer-songwriter Clare Maguire, who calls Rihanna her "favourite pop star," says the way she made us wait is proof of the enviable position she's grafted hard to occupy. "She's got her audience now, so she doesn't have to play by anybody else's rules. Everyone was thinking, 'Where's the album? When's the music coming?', and she was just tweeting about her new line of socks. That's so Rihanna: she'll get the music out when she wants to get it out. And then when she did, it was amazing."
Photo: GETTY

I've also followed Rihanna since 2005's debut single "Pon de Replay," which came out just as I was starting my career as a journalist. My watershed moment came in 2012, when the editor of Attitude magazine asked if I'd like to spend a week with RiRi on the now-infamous 777 Tour. Obviously I said yes, and a few days later I found myself sat in a privately-chartered Boeing 777 with a couple of hundred other journos, Rihanna's entourage, and of course the woman herself. The gruelling schedule for this horribly expensive PR stunt required Rihanna to play seven gigs in seven cities in seven days, with the rest of us in tow. While jetting from Toronto to Stockholm, say, Rihanna might pop back from her first-class cabin to regale us with a story about Drake or Katy Perry or whoever. Or so we thought…

What actually happened was Rihanna greeted her guests on the first flight, pouring champagne for everyone as she worked the aisles, but then sort of disappeared. For most of the trip, we only saw her on stage at each evening’s gig; she may as well have been flying on a different plane. Only towards the end, when frustrated reporters started drunken chants of "Just one quote!" and "I need a headline!", did she re-emerge to offer an apology. "I had to pay attention and take care of my health since I'm on a plane all the time," she explained, seeming rocked by the hostile mood.

At the time, I remember thinking, "What a bloody disaster," but now I view the 777 Tour as an unlikely success. Rihanna gave her nightly performance, presumably partied a bit afterwards, then slept it off on the plane. Other, more uptight pop stars would have dragged themselves down to economy class anyway to show face, but Rihanna simply didn't feel the need to. She proved, without even trying, that she's probably the most authentic pop star we have. It feels as though there's virtually no disconnect between the person she presents to the world and the person she really is, and that's now a large part of her appeal. It's a refreshing contrast to other, more measured superstars like Beyoncé, whose flawlessness has become part of her brand, and Taylor Swift, a savvy businesswoman whose relationship with Tom Hiddleston, whether completely real or not, is certainly being used to move on the conversation from her break-up with Calvin Harris.
Clare Maguire agrees, and says this is what fans want in the social media era. "People like it when their favourite pop stars are not so guarded, not so boring, and I think Rihanna knows this. She's very confident and self-assured and that's very powerful – it's good to have a woman like that in the public eye. I don't ever sense from her that she’s worried about pissing people off with what she says or does. When you're at her level, you're going to be criticised whatever you do, so I think that's really the best way to deal with it."

Clara Amfo thinks Rihanna's evolution began with 2009’s Rated R album, which came out about six months after she was assaulted by then-boyfriend Chris Brown. It introduced an edgier, more aggressive persona from the formerly cute pop singer. "Her as a person, her as a brand, you definitely saw a switch," Amfo recalls. "It was reflected on stage, online and in her personal style. That was when I started to become obsessed with her. Because when that girl says, 'I don't give a fuck,' I actually believe her. And I don't believe every pop star who says that, you know?”

Of course, age and experience have also helped Rihanna to become master of her own destiny. "When she got signed, she was just a kid, so she would probably have gone along with what her label advised her because she didn't know any better," Amfo says. "But she's 28 now and she's essentially an industry veteran. She's exec-producing her albums now, which she didn't do to begin with, so you can really feel the level of control she has."

Rihanna's authenticity isn't just exciting to watch; it also creates a specific kind of trust between us and her. When Rihanna puts out a line of socks or collaborates with Calvin Harris again, we know it's because she wants to do it, not because someone at her label has backed her into a corner. For that reason it's almost impossible to know what she'll do next, but she's guaranteed to have our full attention when she does it.