Where were you this time of year back in 2007? I was most likely sitting at my family’s clunky desktop computer, definitely wearing a polo shirt with the collar popped. Where was Rihanna, you may ask? Why, she was all over the radio airwaves with “Umbrella,” a single that would soon become a certified hit, an iconic music video and her first Grammy win.
At the time, RiRi already had two albums under her belt on her low rise jeans, Music of the Sun and A Girl like Me, but music critics were quick to denote “Umbrella” as her best track to date. Listening back now in 2017, even with a decade of micro-genres that have surfaced on the internet to influence pop music, it still holds up as an exceptional piece of music. Which is no surprise when examining the songwriting and production credits—mega hit producer The-Dream is on there, as is his frequent collaborator “Tricky” Stewart. Jay-Z, of course, is a prominent figure on board, lending his rap prowess to the beginning of the track.
The sound of the track is pop perfection; blending the best of other genres to create a sonic oeuvre both sublime and earworm-inducing. The real live drums playfully straddle the line between rock and hip-hop, the layers of synths are glistening yet a little wonky, the bass line is booming—guitar-like and distorted. An essay could be written on the production alone, but I haven’t even mentioned Rihanna’s vocal performance. It’s effort and ease, it’s exalted but not try-hard. It’s Rihanna at her best.
Because Rihanna as an image is nearly inseparable from Rihanna as a voice, one cannot review “Umbrella” the track without “Umbrella” the music video. She’s successfully shed at least part of her Barbadian island girl aesthetic with a cropped haircut, a black and metallic wardrobe and an imposing set design that elevates her to international pop star status. Did Rihanna inspire visual aspects of the witch house genre that wouldn’t properly emerge until the early 2010s with her silver-painted body posed in a triangle? I’m inclined to believe so.
In a larger pop culture context, for millennials even mildly aware of Rihanna, is it possible to experience rainy weather without hearing the echoes of “Ella ella ella eh”? I think not. In an even larger worldwide weather context, “Umbrella” hitting the number one spot coincided with extreme rainfall and flooding in countries like the UK and New Zealand, even ending a dry spell in Romania. Rihanna’s reign of the world as pop culture icon (pun very much intended) began at this precise moment a decade ago, and her deluge doesn’t show signs of slowing down any time soon.
For more of our track reviews, check out our take on Drake’s joyous ‘More Life’ cut “Portland” right here.