There are those hits that climb to the top of the music charts, live in our iPods for a couple months, morph into ring tones, do a cameo on Grey's Anatomy, and eventually reach their shelf life and disappear into the pop-music ether. And then there are hits, addictive sonic pleasures that burrow deep inside our brains. Songs that seduce not only the Sidekick-packing teens but also the snobby music critics: Madonna's "Like a Virgin"; George Michael's "Freedom 90." Songs that stick. Rihanna, the Barbados-born singer who landed on our shores only three years ago, launched her career by perfecting the formula for the first kind ... last year, just as some critics were about to write off Rihanna as another fresh-faced R&B flirt with, you know, stuffing where her soul should be, she unleashed a monster. Over futuristic drums and a shimmering bass line, the 20-year-old gave us "Umbrella," a synthesized love poem that Jay-Z, then president of Def Jam Records and Rihanna's mentor and boss, anointed when he rapped a few tightly written rhymes for the intro. It was a benevolent gesture that only amped up the song's It Factor. (It also fanned the rumor flames that he and she were at one time romantically involved. But we'll get to that.) However, it was Rihanna's delivery, clear and clipped in all the right spots, and that MTV Music Award–winning video that cemented "Umbrella." Unlike one of those carb-free pop tarts trying her hardest to nail the choreography and muddying up the choruses with vocal acrobatics, Rihanna lets her Bajan accent lace itself through the -ella, -ella, -ella, ey ey eys. Her hips float in fishnets, swaying back and forth—she's the hottest girl in the club. And yet, even in the video’s many phallic moments involving an actual umbrella, she comes off as simultaneously sexy and adorable. The combination is organic; how can we help but compare her to a sexually emerging Britney, who first made us aware of her budding talents by throwing on a thigh-high pleated skirt and doing school-girl slutty? Maybe the dichotomy within Rihanna is the birthright of an island girl who spent a lot of her life in a bathing suit with the beach as her backyard. Wherever it comes from, the idea that a young performer could be so incredibly game, so comfortable in her own skin, and not yet (maybe never?) affected by the physical and psychological weirdnesses American fame brings is like candy to us. We just want to gorge ourselves.
It's amazing how one song can just make an entire career. I am not ashamed to admit that I hated Rihanna's reggae-pop music before Umbrella came out last year. I loathed every stupid song that came out ... barely tolerating SOS (mainly because of the Tainted Love sample) ... and ready to be done with her entirely. Then Good Girl Gone Bad came out and, thankfully, she learned that the reggae-pop thing wasn't working for her. The album is pure dance pop and Umbrella, that monster hit, was ready to conquer the planet. It's really very amazing. It's a good thing she learned the lesson when she did because I honestly believe her career would've been finished if she released one more crappy album. And now look at her ... she is everyone's darling, gracing magazine covers and selling out stadiums ... all on the strength of one hit song. Amazing. [Source]