Rihanna was born on the Caribbean island nation of Barbados in 1988, and grew up there. She came to the U.S. when she was only 16 to pursue a music career, but she retains Barbadian citizenship, and is heavily involved in local and global charities.
How come she speaks English, then?
Try not to be so ignorant in public, huh? Barbados is an English-speaking nation. It used to be part of the British Empire, and English is still the primary language there. Her mother’s from Guyana—also a former British colony—and her father’s part Irish. Plus, she’s been in the U.S. for six years and only speaks, or sings, with a Barbadian accent when she wants to.
Yeah, about that.
We’re getting to it. When she was 16, she managed to audition for a record producer (Evan Rogers, who had worked with Christina Aguilera, 98 Degrees and Kelly Clarkson) holidaying in Barbados, and he was so impressed that he and his writing partner Carl Sturken helped her record a four-song demo, on the strength of which Jay-Z immediately signed her to Def Jam. That demo included “Pon de Replay”, which would become her first single and her first hit, a dancehall-inflected banger that drew as much from U.S. club music as from reggae or soca, and which threatened to typecast her as a one-trick island token, a female version of Shaggy or Ini Kamoze.
So how’d she keep that from happening?
Mostly by getting right back to work. Despite the success of “Pon de Replay,” the parent album, Music of the Sun (2005), didn’t do particularly well (it’s still only gone gold), and six months later she released her second, A Girl Like Me (2006). On the strength of the J. R. Rotem-produced “SOS” and the Ne-Yo-written, Stargate-produced ballad “Unfaithful," she successfully repositioned herself as a versatile R&B diva, able to handle the intimate chamber drama of “Unfaithful” as well as the club thumps of “SOS.” In the sparser setting of the latter, the particular qualities of her voice, its combination of affectless flatness and fluid competence, came to the fore. Some people have called her voice robotic, even harsh; we’ll get to why we think that’s a good thing.
And then The Song happened, right?
Yes, the Rihanna song even your grandma knows and likes. Her previous songs had done well—“SOS” even hit No. 1, briefly—but it turns out she could do even better. Tricky Stewart and Terius "The-Dream" Nash, the premier songwriting-producing team of the latter half of the oughts, initially wrote “Umbrella” for Britney Spears, but Interscope rejected it because they already had enough songs for Blackout. The song made its way to Rihanna, and with an introduction from her boss Jay-Z (which isn’t the part of the song anyone remembers), it became the biggest hit of 2007, a worldwide No. 1 and an instant standard. A ballad, but with a strong, almost martial beat, “Umbrella” became one of the definitive love songs of the modern era, inspiring covers and remixes from almost everybody, including Chris Brown’s remix, “Cinderella”.
Uh-oh. Chris Brown?
Sounds like you already know this part. Yes, Rihanna seems to have started dating Chris Brown towards the end of 2007, as “Umbrella” was being called things like "Song of the Year." Its parent album, Good Girl Gone Bad, was her bestselling CD and one of the bestselling albums of the decade, boosted further by “Umbrella” follow-up “Don’t Stop the Music," a more conventional club song, and by two tracks off the 2008 reissue of the album: the sarcastic breakup ballad “Take a Bow” and the horror-pop dance song “Disturbia," on which she used Auto-Tune to stretch and chop her voice to match the juddery frame-splicing of the music. Then in early 2009, Brown was arrested and charged with assault and criminal threats. We’ve all seen the photos; there’s not much need to go into details.
But how do we know who’s right and who’s wrong?
Okay, we know there’s some pretty young people looking at this, so let’s break it down. First, men who hit women are always wrong. Second, people who take the side of an abuser against a victim are always wrong. Third, people who publish the identity of a victim of domestic violence are scum. Fourth, none of this is any of our business; Rihanna is a pop star, but she’s also a human being and deserves her privacy. And finally, being in a relationship never means you just have to accept anything. If you need to end it, end it. Report abuse. Protect yourself. Be safe.
Back to Rihanna. So what happened next?
Well, she never left the pop charts, thanks to her frequent collaborative work; she’d sung the hooks for T.I.’s “Live Your Life” and Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” with Kanye West. And in late 2009 she released Rated R, a dark, industrial-edged album that took the themes of betrayal and monstrosity of “Take a Bow” and “Disturbia” and ratcheted them up. “Russian Roulette” was a dark fantasy of co-dependent suicide, but it was the two big hits—“Hard,” with Young Jeezy, and the slamming electro “Rude Boy”—that consolidated her place at the forefront of modern pop.
So she didn’t address the abuse at all?
She was never under any obligation to do so. But she did sing the hook for Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie," which is told from the point of view of an abuser, and we already mentioned “Russian Roulette.” But since she returned with 2010's Loud, she seems to have mostly gotten over the darkness and ambiguities of Rated R, with frothy club anthems like “Only Girl (in the World)," the cooing “What’s My Name?” with Drake and the slap-and-tickle sexplay of "S&M." It’s been a successful move for her; she now has had more number ones than any other solo performer in the past decade. Refusing to be typecast has turned out to be her biggest strength of all.