From Barbadian teen pop princess to full-fledged bad gyal, we break down the evolution of Rihanna’s aesthetic album by album.
It’s hard to remember a time when Rihanna wasn’t making headlines. Over the course of her now 10-year career, the global superstar has undergone one of the most significant aesthetic metamorphoses the world has ever seen. Before she was a household name, @badgalriri was simply Rihanna; a burgeoning pop star from Barbados whose dancehall-pop flair and teen zine image would eventually have the entire world completely spellbound.
Fast forward to the present, and RiRi’s public image is fueled by something of a different sort. When she’s not flaunting her talents as a joint-rolling virtuoso, ruffling the feathers of Instagram’s board of conduct or committing barbaric acts of vengeance in grisly music videos, she’s making history as Dior’s first-ever black campaign star, collaborating with the crème de la crème of the entertainment industry’s preeminent echelon and acquiring countless accolades for her game-changing music and style feats.
With RiRi’s eighth studio album Anti dropping this Friday – after three years of staggering anticipation – we take a moment to look back on how the artist’s aesthetic has changed throughout the years.
Music of the Sun (2005)
Believe it or not, there was a time in RiRi’s career where her reputation wasn’t fueled by risqué red carpet entrances, blood-soaked music videos, grade-A joint rolling and IDGAF sass. Backtrack to nearly a decade, and @badgalriri was simply Rihanna; a fresh-faced Barbadian beauty whose cookie-cutter teen queen image and Caribbean-influenced pop flair won over the hearts of millions of fans worldwide.
At just 17, the singer emerged onto the scene with her inaugural single “Pon de Replay,” an infectious dancehall-pop track that would go on to become the summer anthem of 2005. Shortly followed by her Def Jam Recordings-released debut album Music of the Sun, Rihanna earned a sizable amount of accolade for being a breath of fresh islander air, setting her apart from other chart-dominating urban dance-pop chanteuses such as Ashanti, Beyoncé and Ciara.
A Girl Like Me (2006)
Riding off the success of her big debut, Rihanna swiftly dished out a follow-up LP the following year with the slightly bigger, slightly sexier A Girl Like Me. While the singer’s signature Caribbean-influenced sound rang throughout, the album also incorporated elements of rock music and R&B, with its lyrics dealing with more mature and personal issues (infidelity, heartache, growing up) the 18-year-old was dealing with at the time.
Coinciding with the progression of its lyrical content, A Girl Like Me also demonstrated a moderate but noticeable shift in the singer’s sexual image, revealed via the steamy (but still PG-rated) videos for the album’s lead singles “SOS” and “Unfaithful.”
Good Girl Gone Bad (2007)
Alas, the album that marked the turning point in RiRi’s public image from wholesome teen zine pop star to fierce game-changing diva. Good Girl Gone Bad presented an entirely new musical direction for the singer that departed from the breezy, Caribbean sound of her previous releases; employing a more upbeat, R&B/electronic sound that incorporated many influences from 1980’s pop. Apart from the music, the album endorsed a discernibly edgier, sexier and more rebellious look for Rihanna, who chopped off her luscious locks for a more Æon Flux-style bob cut. “I basically took the attitude of the bad girl and I really got rebellious and just did everything the way I wanted to do it,” the singer revealed in an interview with The StarPhoenix. “I just want to have a little more fun with my music and be a little more experimental in terms of my image and my sound. I just reinvented myself.”
This “bad girl” transformation proved wildly lucrative for the singer; selling over seven million copies worldwide by 2009, Good Girl Gone Bad became Rihanna’s then most profitable album to date and received seven Grammy nominations, winning the accolade for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for the album’s massively successful lead single “Umbrella.” But aside from being a commercial feat, Good Girl Gone Bad also solidified RiRi as a bonafide international pop phenomenon, sex symbol and Top 40 charts regular.
Rated R (2009)
While Good Girl Gone Bad certainly represented a major transformation for Rihanna, Rated R marked the completion of her metamorphosis. Released following a brutal assault perpetrated by then-boyfriend Chris Brown, the album’s dark overtones hinted that the artist was channeling and trying to heal from the traumatic experience. RiRi’s heavier ruminations were coupled with a disarming blend of vulnerability and unbending defiance, showing us a different, more complex side of the new “bad gyal” we’d come to know.
In many ways, Rated R also marked Rihanna’s most experimental album to date. Songs like the dancehall-riddim-forward, bawdily delightful “Rude Boy” paid homage to the singer’s Bajan roots while exulting in her newfound sense of sexual autonomy. Conversely, heartfelt ballads like “Te Amo” forayed into Latin music, while tracks like “Rockstar 101” called on the talents of Guns n’ Roses top hat-wearing guitarist Slash. 2009 undoubtedly marked the arrival of a powerhouse Rihanna who was made stronger by adversity, and had less fucks to give than ever before.
Could an album title be any more self-explanatory? This effort saw RiRi return to letting the good times roll, and a freshly-dyed crown of fiery red hair came along for the ride. Where Rated R was dark, aggressive and slightly introspective, Loud was upbeat, playful and light-hearted.
Rihanna dipped heavily into the pop standards and dancehall rhythms of her Music of the Sun and A Girl Like Me days, this time calling in Young Money breadwinners Drake and Nicki Minaj to feature on “What’s My Name?” and “Raining Men,” respectively. The song that really let us all know Queen Rih was back to being the life of the party was “Cheers (Drink to That),” a heady pop anthem featuring vocal samples from everyone’s favorite sk8r girl Avril Lavigne.
Talk That Talk (2011)
Rihanna called it in 2010 when she sang, “that Rihanna reign just won’t let up.” Exactly one year and five days after Loud, Talk That Talk hit shelves, and the dedicated group of fans known as the Rihanna Navy lost their damn minds, en masse.
Apparently so did the rest of America; the album debuted at number three on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart. This time the steadily-rising pop icon was listed as executive producer of the project, and a slew of well-known names including Hit Boy, Calvin Harris, Bangladesh and The Dream also lent their support.
Though her self-confidence was never in question, Talk That Talk was an affirmation that RiRi was feeling herself. “Suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion,” she crooned on one of the album’s sexier tracks, aptly titled “Cockiness.” On the eponymous song “Talk That Talk” she lets the world know, “Cause you ain’t never had a woman like me, and you will never have another like me.”
By this time the edgy, IDGAF Rihanna who first made an appearance on Good Girl Gone Bad didn’t feel like an act.
This album, title and all, is basically the equivalent of sending a “sorry not sorry” text to someone you should probably care that you offended, but you actually don’t because you’re too busy being a bad bish to consider the feelings of others.
That is to say, Unapologetic was met with lukewarm reviews by critics, many of whom argued that it lacked interest and felt rushed. However, thanks to Rihanna’s dedicated fans, edgy style sensibility and various fashion and beauty-oriented side projects, she still debuted number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, proving sometimes being unbothered actually pays off.
In addition to clinching the number one spot, Unapologetic also yielded the most successful release week of Rihanna’s entire career. That same year she further cemented her reputation as a grade-A pothead when she was snapped smoking a giant blunt with Snoop Dogg. She was also photographed rolling a pearl-ass blunt on the head of her security guard. Yes, she used the man’s head.
Anti (November 27, 2015)
Anti marks perhaps the biggest divergence from RiRi’s typical album drop antics. See, for most artists, a two plus-year gap between album releases isn’t too unusual; it took Beyoncé two years and six months between 4 and her self-titled 2013 masterpiece, and Kanye two years and seven months between My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus.
But for Rihanna, an artist who has almost consecutively released a full-length project each year since her 2005 debut (2008 being the only exception), this three-year drought seems very out of character. The LP’s anticipation has been staggering since 2013, and after “American Oxygen,” “FourFiveSeconds” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” stormed the airwaves this spring, Anti seemed high and ready to dominate the summer charts. But now, after months of being shrouded in secrecy, Anti is finally ready to make its grand debut.
But as we inch closer and closer to Anti’s glorious inception, we can marvel in knowing that it will most likely be the bad gal’s biggest and baddest album to date. Between her politically-charged single “American Oxygen,” her star-studded collaborative ballad with Paul McCartney and Kanye in “FourFiveSeconds,” the über grisy, high-octane video for “Bitch Better Have My Money” and an epical album cover, Rihanna has made it crystal clear that Anti will be (and has been) well worth the wait. Oh, and did we mention that Yeezy is also billed as the album’s executive producer?