Don’t be fooled by Rihanna’s global superstardom. She’s still Rih Rih from the island — Saint Michael, Barbados to be exact. Her annual visit to play mas at the island’s Crop Over festival Monday was a glamorous reminder in case we forgot. The Caribbean queen also made news Tuesday when producer Diplo revealed to GQ, he couldn’t get Rihanna on his track because she thought it sounded like a “reggae song at an airport.” Here, the unapologetic singer held down her culture again—this time standing firm against the gentrification of her roots.
And that’s why we love her. As pop as Rihanna is, she’s always proudly incorporated authentic island sounds into her music. “Pon de Replay” was the beginning, and she continued repping on “Rude Boy” in 2009, and last year’s chart-topper, “Work.” Yet some fans, including me, are wishing for more: a Rihanna project solely of Caribbean chunes. And now would be the perfect time for it.
For one, Rihanna has the fan base who is ready to support. A quick Twitter search of “Rihanna reggae album,” “Rihanna dancehall album,” or “Rihanna Caribbean album” returns lengthy results of listeners hoping R9 – the name fans are calling her ninth record – takes this direction.
Rihanna has reportedly started work on her next record. British artist Raye told MTV UK she was invited to Rihanna’s songwriting camp in July, so it’s possible new songs are being selected as we speak. In May, music sites Revolt and Dancehall Hip Hop tracked down new songs Rihanna registered in the ASCAP repertory. Of the five, two might be dancehall records. One called “Phatty,” credits Mark Anthony Myrie, the birth name of dancehall artist Buju Banton, who is currently imprisoned until December 2018. Being that he cannot record behind bars, it is believed that the song uses Banton’s unreleased material. Another track, “Lock and Key,” features songwriting credits from Jamaican dancehall singer Kranium (2013’s “Nobody Has to Know”) and Jamaican producer Supa Dubs, who worked on Drake’s “Controlla.”
It is still too early to tell whether Rihanna is going to focus on making a dancehall album, as some of the other newly registered songs call on hip hop musicians: Producers Travis Scott and Hit-Boy are credited on a track named “Joyride”; and songwriter Key Wane and rapper Tink are behind “Body Language.”
But even as we wait for Rihanna to drop a purely Caribbean-influenced album, we know that she’s come damn close. Her 2005 debut Music of the Sun is the most reggae and dancehall-influenced record we received so far from the singer.
The first four songs of the album carry a hybrid of reggae and R&B vibes, which includes the Sista Nancy-sampled “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No),” featuring Vybz Kartel. On the second half of the album, Rihanna sings snoozy mid-tempo pop cuts that don’t compliment her confident essence as we know it now. There was also “Rush” featuring Canadian hip hop/dancehall artist Kardinal Offishall, and a remix of “Pon De Replay” with Elephant Man.
The opus performed fairly well on the Billboard album charts, peaking at #10. But her second single “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want” didn’t have the same impact as her first; it reached no. 36, barely cracking the top 40. L.A. Reid, former CEO of Island Def Jam Music Group, admitted in his 2016 memoir Sing To Me, he was betting more on the success of Rihanna’s labelmate Teairra Mari at the time. He said Beyoncé saw the light before he did after watching Rihanna perform at a Def Jam artist showcase. “A bell went off for me, however, when, after the showcase, Beyoncé came up to me. ‘That Rihanna girl,’ she said, ‘she’s a beast.’”
With determination to stay in the game, Rihanna pivoted to a pop-friendly sound. This move turned her into the label’s star player. Overnight the island girl grew to pop sensation by snatching up tracks turned down by Christina Milian (2006’s “S.O.S.”), Britney Spears (2007’s “Umbrella”), and Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls (2011’s “We Found Love”). Rih reportedly told Allure in 2006, “A lot of songs people pass on and then I hear them, and I’m like, ‘What were they thinking? Give that to me!”
This leads me to the next reason I’m sold on Rihanna making another Caribbean-themed album, but a better version. Although she didn’t have the commercial success with Music of the Sun, Rihanna presently has the artistic ear to choose songs that work best for her. This gift has sharpened since her first release and is evident with her 14 #1’s.
For instance, Rihanna fought to get “Work” on last year’s Anti even though her label pushed back against it, songwriter PartyNextDoor told the NY Times last August. On release day, some critics wrote insufferable reviews about the song’s “indecipherable” lyrics, labeled it “tropical house” instead of dancehall, and claimed it wouldn’t be as memorable compared to her other hits. But they were wrong. “Work” shot to number one and stayed there for nine consecutive weeks. With this track and the Latin-influenced “Wild Thoughts” heating up the charts this summer, Rihanna has mastered how to bring these international rhythms to the same level of influence as her pop hits—without losing the flavor.
She has the budget, access, and influence to capitalize on this momentum with an extended play or full-length record carrying more of these vibes. For every album, Rihanna enlists the best of the best for songwriting camps, where the top music minds and newcomers pen and pitch songs for her record. In 2011, NPR reported this process of Rihanna hit-making costs $78,000 a song.
Rihanna’s take on a Caribbean-themed album would also mean something major for a female artist at her level. There have always been Caribbean-born and artists of Caribbean descent who have seen international success. From Bob Marley, Sean Paul to Popcaan, these artists have something in common besides their music style: they’re all men. Female voices don’t seem to be pushed to the top of the international reggae/dancehall and soca scenes, especially in the U.S., as frequently. And even when they are, it seems only a few can dominate at a time: from Sister Nancy in the ‘80s, Patra in the ‘90s, Lady Saw and Alison Hinds in the ‘00s, and Spice in the late ‘00s into the ‘10s. This shouldn’t be Rihanna’s burden, as sexism in the industry is a problem too big for her to fix alone. But if there’s anyone who can break through, it’s Rih.
Rihanna’s take on a Caribbean-themed album would also mean something major for a female artist at her level.
So with all these factors in mind, what would the perfect Caribbean-themed Rihanna album sound like? For one, PartyNextDoor needs to be on hand. The singer/songwriter clearly has the witty lyrics and luring melodies that match Rihanna’s self-assured and sexy nature: from “Work,” “Sex With Me” and “Wild Thoughts.” In reading several timelines, fans would also like to see the singer collab with Drake and Trini-American rapper Nicki Minaj. Rihanna could also put on for the soca fans and give the people a carnival anthem for 2018. Moreover, due to the West Indian music industry’s inability to support female artists on the higher levels, Rihanna could recruit a few talented female singers or songwriters who are making waves locally, and break them on an international front.
There is also a huge reason this may never ever happen. Rihanna is still part of the mainstream music machine and releasing this kind of record, even with the recent popularity of Caribbean-inspired pop, may still be seen as too risky. The truth is, many American ears are still too green to the sound of the islands and see it as a trend not a sound to dig deep into. But even if the powers that be fail to see this kind of project as a worthy of investment, we hope Rihanna is paying attention to her fans’ wishes and can somehow swing some tracks our way as an independent release. Fingers crossed.