You have to wonder what it was about then-16 year old Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty that impressed Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella CEO Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter so much. Was it her surprisingly strong soprano? Her naturally striking good looks? Her impressive footwork on the dance floor? Her charming, girl-next-door personality? Or a combination of all of the above? Whatever it was, her dynamic made such a strong impression on Mr. Carter that when she auditioned in his NYC office, he signed her to a 7-album record deal with Def Jam on the spot!
Keep in mind, Def Jam is one of the premier record labels in the industry and they don’t just sign anybody. There’s dozens of singers and groups, both R&B and hip-hop, that would kill for a chance to be on the roster. So for a 16-year-old unknown from Barbados to ink a deal with them is an impressive feat in itself. Not to mention a 7-album record deal – something that is both a blessing and a curse. While such a contract seems to hint at the possibility of longevity in this cutthroat business, a lackluster debut could also result in the contract being broken faster than bones at a Jets game. But with the release of her debut album, Music of the Sun, Rihanna sounds as if she’s taken the first step towards a long and prosperous career.
She blasted onto the scene, and straight to the top of the charts, with her energetic ode to dancehall grooving, Pon De Replay. The infectious beat pulsating out your speakers and straight down your spine; Rihanna’s accented soprano sounding hypnotic against the groove and burning the catchy hookline onto your brain. And while the album doesn’t reach such energetic heights as this tune again, by no means is the rest of the project a tedious or pedestrian listen.
One of the more refreshing qualities about this album is that unlike her Roc-A-Fella counterpart, Teairra Mari, The Shawn Carter Administration doesn’t try to groom Rihanna into being another thugged-out, glammed-up, ghetto-fabulous, hip-hop Barbie doll with street smarts from around the way. Rather, they allow Rihanna to be herself and keep her material in her natural element; age-appropriate lyricism and realistic concepts awash with lush reggae rhythms and island grooves.
But with such an element, one needs to have an open mind. One need not assume that the remaining 11 tracks are carbon, filtered copies of “Replay” because the album takes many twists and turns down the roads of reggae, dancehall, Diwali, and the like, while retaining a smooth, cohesive sound. “Replay” is simply the bait used to lure you into the album before Rihanna throws you for a loop by following it up with a straight-laced reggae tune; the mellow Here I Go Again, which has such a smooth groove to it that would make even Mr. Marley proud.
If It’s Lovin’ That You Want steps it up a notch, the TrackMasters surprisingly spicing up their usually generic and bland sound with some steel drums, snare kicks, and terrific bassline, before Rihanna mellows things back out with her rendition of the reggae classic, You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No), the production itself evoking the warmth of the islands while Rihanna flexes her muscles as a young woman done wrong quite well.
Those who pine for a more mainstream, hip-hop version of Rihanna need look no further than That La, La, La, Rush and There’s A Thug In My Life. While “La, La, La” has potential with its stutter-step backbeat and Rihanna’s flirty hook, the two latter tunes are awful missteps that are prime examples as to why some record label heads should butt out of the recording process altogether. “Rush” is just a confused mess of words and noise that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor while the title of “There’s A Thug In My Life” alone indicates that this was Def Jam’s paltry attempt to earn Rihanna some street cred. Too bad Rihanna gives the most unconvincing performance imaginable; her sounding like the last girl on the planet that would ride or d-i-e for her t-h-u-g.
If you want more of the energetic Rihanna, Let Me fits nicely, the production and hookline mimicking the energy and catchiness of “Replay” to the best of its ability. And for those simply wondering whether or not Rihanna can sing, take a listen to The Last Time, Music of the Sun and Now I Know and then you tell me. “Last Time” is the sweetest kiss-off to an unfaithful beau that Rihanna’s pained heart could muster, the title track is a gorgeous ode to the music of Rihanna’s homeland, and “Now I Know” is Rihanna and a lone, acoustic piano for 5:02 of impressive bliss; all 3 tunes highlight the tone, texture, range, and strength of Rihanna’s voice. While some may be turned off by her thick accent, I personally feel it adds distinction and character to Rihanna’s voice and doesn’t detract from the sheer impressiveness it displays throughout the record.
Despite many people feeling the whole “reggae” movement in R&B/hip-hop to be a gimmick, Rihanna and her sound are far removed from such a trend and I feel her album, Music of the Sun, is hardly the product of a passing fad. Rihanna sounds extremely comfortable in such an element and her material already displays untapped potential and an unspoken maturity that’s sure to develop as her career progresses, granted she doesn’t morph into a mainstream caricature and generalized facsimile of herself several years from now.
There’s something extremely real about Music of the Sun that makes it hard to deny. So indulge yourself and give Rihanna a fair chance. She’s definitely one to keep an eye on. She doesn’t seem as focused on racking up #1 hits and Platinum plaques by any means necessary. She seems more interested on making more durable music that will contribute to her longevity. This girl’s in it to win it, for sure.