Rihanna's success has never been bound to language or a cohesive set of lyrics. Cast her effortless chic on the beat du jour and all you need is a few syllables on the hook to create joints like "Disturbia" and "Umbrella," two of the best-selling digital singles of all time. (This talent is tailor-made for rap's current, Atlantan moment, in which Young Thug and Future can napalm a verse while getting only a few discernible words in there.) On "Work," Rihanna's newest and most undeniable dancehall single to date, she lays into her Barbadian patois so that the words slip into one another like bodies on the dance floor.
Rihanna doesn't seem to be bound to time either. It's as if she existed in a different temporal space than the rest of us, a place where there are endless hours for work and bodies don't age. At only 28, she has won lifetime achievement awards and eight Grammys, become an honorary ambassador for Barbados, and sold more digital copies than any other artist. Remarkably, Robyn Rihanna Fenty has done all of this by the age most of us begin to buy furniture for our studio apartments.
More remarkable, Rihanna has done it all in a unique model among female pop musicians. Since Madonna slinked across the stage in a wedding dress at the 1984 Video Music Awards, the pantheon of women in pop has taken on some sort of persona or mask: Madonna the streetwise virgin, Beyoncé the divine, Taylor Swift the giggling girl in the bleachers.
Rihanna might be alone in her lack of persona. She seems to stare at the camera as herself, unfazed and untethered from the hype. Her Instagram is one of the few pop accounts — other than Miley Cyrus' wonderfully bizarre feed — that's not just a stream of promotional drivel but includes dumb memes and cell-phone pictures taken like the rest of us. Though it too may be a PR-crafted image, it's this "like the rest of us but better" quality that draws her fans, the #RihannaNavy, out to each world tour. In September, some Brazilian fans went so far as to wear diapers to the music festival Rock in Rio so they wouldn't have to hop out of the line to take care of business.
On her new album, Anti, Rihanna extends this relaxed nonimage to music, still her primary output. For eight years, from 2005 to 2012, Rihanna released a record like clockwork. With a four-year lapse since her last album, it feels as if Rihanna has slowed the pace and the lessened intensity on Anti — and that's a good thing. The nonchalant attitude allows her to take a risk or two, like passing on the self-reflexive, ball-out anthem "Bitch Better Have My Money" and borrowing a cut from the Australian band Tame Impala. (Here lies Rihanna's other great talent: making songs her own. After hearing her version of "Same Ol' Mistakes," you might find it hard to imagine it sung in an Aussie lilt.)
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Of course, Anti still has the horsepower to move sales, featuring powerhouse producers such as Travis Scott, DJ Mustard, and Timbaland. "Work" is utterly perfect, one of those songs that can make you move — with or without your permission — in seconds flat. And "Higher" is another example that Rihanna can still make a scream-along anthem like she did with "Diamonds" and "We Found Love."
But Rihanna's upcoming show at the AAA is not an album tour. It's a world tour, where new records melt into a stream of career hits, million-dollar stages, and a walk-in closet of costume changes. Expect nothing less than the singer at her casual, brilliant best and some 19,600 people, diapers and all, turning up for Rihanna.