She’s the first artist to shift 100m digital singles; Vogue calls her the world’s most exciting fashion muse; in music, her varied collaborators are an A-list dream team, from Drake, Paul McCartney and Coldplay to Eminem, Kanye and Nicki Minaj. Rihanna is, therefore, a person who can afford to run to her own schedule. It’s approaching midnight when she sits down with NME in the low-lit upstairs room of an LA photo studio.
It’s been a long day. We first meet during the afternoon, and while it’s hard to predict how a Rihanna greeting might unfold, NME isn’t quite prepared for the breezy stride into the room, the smiley “Hi!”, the hug and the high five. “I’m off!” she then declares grandly, waving her arm around her head, “to transform!”
She disappears into the room next door. At another shoot down the corridor Will Ferrell comes and goes, but not before popping in to say hi to Rihanna.
When Rihanna reappears, she does so with a melodramatic, pre-emptive cry of “Finally!”, but it’s fine: waiting a few hours is fine for Rihanna.
Between 2005 and 2012 Rihanna released or re-released at least one album a year, every year. Then in 2013 something strange happened: no Rihanna album. But at least it’s finished, right?
“It’s not done!” Rihanna chortles. By now she’s curled up on a sofa and draped in an oversized green bomber jacket. “To me it’s never done until it’s done. Until the final moment.”
So her eighth album proper doesn’t yet have a tracklisting (“I have so many songs I love – and they’re so different – that it’s hard to actually put them all on the same album”).
And there’s no title yet – Rihanna’s whittled it down to two, but acknowledges that fans will probably always call it ‘R8’, the name they’ve given it in the absence of concrete information. “No matter what I post online, within three comments there’s somebody saying, ‘Where is ‘R8’?’” She cackles. “I could post anything. Nothing else matters. They don’t care about anything but that.”
The problem here, NME proposes, is that 50m Twitter followers are on a hair-trigger waiting for an album,“I know!” she laughs. She seems to be enjoying this a little too much for NME’s liking. “But it makes me excited, because I can’t wait to give them something great.”
It’s not just Rihanna’s schedule that needs to accommodate the project’s completion: earlier this year Kanye West announced he was exec producing the album, and tonight Rihanna confirms the continued involvement of the potential President Of The United States. “Kanye definitely wanted to be involved in making the album,” she explains. “So he did start helping me make it. Now we just have to wait to get back in the studio together. His schedule and mine are totally opposite right now, but I think this month we’ll be back in the studio.”
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With pop culture moving faster than ever, it might seem hazardous to leave such a gap between major releases. But Rihanna’s career is peppered with moments that others may have considered risky, so NME asks her to consider her need to take risks when so many of her peers seem to succeed by playing safe. “I take risks because I get bored,” she shrugs. “And I get bored very easily.”
She tells the story of when she and her best girlfriend were 11-year-old army cadets, growing up in Barbados. “We’d have to give trouble in order to enjoy this discipline we were getting,” she remembers. “And we’d refuse to do push-ups when we were punished. It was a question of: why just do it? It was so boring to follow the rules.”
Rihanna left Barbados for New York before the cadets could kick her out; Jay Z signed her the day he met her. Ten years down the line, Rihanna’s ambition for her next album is that it works, in the way some of her previous releases haven’t, like a ‘proper’ album. “It’s easy to make an album full of great songs,” is how she puts it, and that’s a fair point: as well as being fashion’s most exciting muse, Rihanna is now also the ultimate muse for the planet’s greatest songwriters and producers. “But I want people to go for the ride. The songs have to make sense together.”
She smiles when NME points out that the three singles so far – ‘American Oxygen’, ‘Four Five Seconds’, ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ – are wildly diverse. “I know,” she says. “I know!” And then she laughs uproariously. Rihanna’s impossible-to-second-guessness is all very well, but this just feels like trolling. She giggles. “Maybe a little bit.” Then she laughs again. “But I love what I love, and these songs each have their own demeanour, and the videos reflect the character of each song. I want every video to take you on a different journey. A different ride.”
And some of those videos, as we learned this summer, offer rides to quite unexpected locations.
In July Rihanna’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ video appeared online. It contained scenes of kidnap, torture, drugs, murder, nudity and beach inflatables. Naturally the seven-minute mini-movie prompted internet meltdown, with thinkpieces flying in from all quarters.
“I wanted people to feel like they’d got more than they’d expected,” Rihanna says today. And they certainly got that, NME confirms. “Yeah,” she chortles. “But not in a shocking way – in the sense of ‘wow, this is a real mini-movie’. You know? I wanted to go deeper. Mostly what I wanted was for people to get it.”
Was Rihanna happy with how people responded? “I was very happy with the reaction,” she states. “Very happy.”
There’s a quizzical smile on her face as if she doesn’t quite understand what NME’s getting at. So what, then, does she think of observations that the video – in which Rihanna and friends torture a naked woman to punish her fully-clothed husband – is anti-feminist? A full-force Rihanna eyeroll is something to behold, and here one comes. “Well I mean now we’re reaching,” she tuts. Throughout our interview Rihanna speaks softly: she doesn’t raise her voice; she won’t swear once. But she means every word she says. “I didn’t think about anything that had to do with that. Wow. And at the end of the day the women won. The bitch was the man. So I’m confused. Those are the people that didn’t get it. I’m not worried about those people. This was not a woman empowerment video. I was making a piece of art.”
In the post-Gaga pop era it often seems that the only ‘acceptable’ message for existing or trainee pop icons is one of positivity, with that lucrative role model status baked into an artist’s persona at boardroom level. But Rihanna seems to thrive by keeping people at arm’s length, and it’s strange – if exciting – that in 2015 Rihanna and an artist like Taylor Swift share the same pop sphere.
“Er, I doubt it,” is Rihanna’s response when asked if she’d accept an invitation to become the latest in a long succession of artists to join Swift on stage. “I don’t think I would. I just don’t think it makes sense. I don’t think our brands are the same: I don’t think they match, I don’t think our audiences are the same. In my mind she’s a role model, I’m not.” She adds, with a smile.
Rihanna’s star persona has long since surpassed the base elements many once considered part and parcel of pop stardom, and at the heart of this is the assumption that pop music is for kids, a concept that seems more outdated than ever in an era when Justin Bieber’s making music with Diplo and Skrillex.
“I can’t make a song for a particular person or demographic,” Rihanna reasons. “If I love it, I’m gonna do it. I have to perform it for the rest of my life. A song is like a tattoo – you can never get away from it. You can’t stand behind something you don’t believe in. You can pretend for a little while, but there’s always going to be resentment. I can be who I am and sleep at night, knowing there’s no pressure to be anything else.”
We talk about how Rihanna hopes her life will pan out: she pictures herself as an 80-year-old lady, covered in tattoos, sitting on the beach with grandchildren playing nearby. “When I see myself as an old woman, I just think about being
happy,” she smiles. “And hopefully, I’ll still be fly.”
It might seem that only in recent years has the Rihanna who often says no has eclipsed the Rihanna who frequently said yes, but she casts her mind back eight years when she tells NME tonight about the first time in her career that she felt powerful.
By 2007 Rihanna’s first two albums had established her as an unimpeachable pop princess on the periphery of the bigtime, but for her third she felt she needed to change. So the night before she shot the cover for ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’, she cut her hair. “We sent [the label] the images. Their reaction was, ‘These are way too edgy. What are we going to do with these? We can’t use these.’ But the photoshoot was done. And we weren’t going to do it again.” The accompanying music featured the former high school beauty queen likening love to rehab and burning some bloke’s house down. “I had to rebel and do it my way,” she remembers. “And I had to jump ship in order to achieve that. Without permission.”
That might all sound quaint compared with what would come later, but back in 2007 Rihanna was changing the course of her own career, and within a year she’d become a superstar. “I just have a way of breaking the rules even when I don’t intend to,” she reasons. “You have to let people be who they are – you have to believe that that’s going to be the best version of them.”
But a bigger shift was still to come when Rihanna followed that hit album by throwing a potential tyre shredder across the road in the shape of the downbeat, dark and reflective ‘Rated R’. The album raised eyebrows at the record label, where industry legend LA Reid was concerned about Rihanna’s new direction. “He told me, ‘I’m not gonna lie, I’m really scared about this,’” Rihanna remembers. “But he also said: ‘You have to make this album.’ He felt me bleeding through the music.”
‘Rated R’ was the masterpiece that birthed the Rihanna we know today: a brutal album teeming with disenchantment and uncertainty, with stark, monochrome imagery to match. “It was a time in my life where I felt vulnerable and naked,” Rihanna admits. “I felt like the world was watching and that there was a spotlight on me. I felt confused. I knew I couldn’t make a happy album. It was like: it’s not the truth. It’s not real. I know I won’t feel like this forever, but this is how I feel right now.”
Today, as Rihanna talks about aspects of her life, it seems the spotlight that shone so brightly during the ‘Rated R’ period still stings her eyes. “You kinda… Just don’t deal with it,” she sighs. “It’s hard. So I don’t deal with it. Every time there’s paparazzi pulling up outside the building there’s anxiety. I can’t say I’m numb to it, because it never feels normal.” She thinks for a moment. “But it’s not surprising, either.”
Does it concern her that, by her own admission, she doesn’t have a coping mechanism? “It’s annoying,” she sighs. “But what’s the worst that can happen? They’re just taking pictures. A picture of every move. Every good move, every bad move, every wrong move, every awkward move, every misunderstood move, it’s all there. There’s no getting away from that now unless I start to completely suck at my job. Unless I completely fall off. So I guess there’s a silver lining to all this.”
When NME asks Rihanna if she enjoys the time she spends alone, her answer is an instant “yes”. “My thoughts never bore me,” she shrugs, with a distant look in her eye. “I like to spend my time alone wisely. A moment of quiet. A moment of silence. A moment of just organising my thoughts. I just enjoy being alone. Maybe a little too much…”
Rihanna and NME started talking on Thursday night; it’s now Friday. We head downstairs to find the studio all but deserted. As she says goodbye with a hug, Rihanna asks NME about life in the UK. “I’d like to live in London next year, you know,” she smiles. “I want to try it. While I’m childless, and I can run around. I wanna do it.”
Relocating would be a disruptive move for an LA-based artist like Rihanna, but it would be amusing to watch anybody try to stop her. For any artist, defining one’s own territory is the ultimate freedom. And for the artist who’s been chatting with NME tonight, ‘free’ is more than just a word on a T-shirt. It’s a way of life.