A decade on from its release, we look back on the song that transformed the Bajan singer into the superstar that she is today
In March 2007, the world desperately needed a new, female pop hit. Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Kesha were still a year or two from arriving to the party with their fireworks, bad romances, and era-defying anthems, while Britney Spears was in the middle of a highly-publicised breakdown. Beyoncé was going steady, but hadn’t quite crossed over from the more R&B-centric side of pop music into the full-on pop juggernaut she is today. And then there was Rihanna, a Caribbean-diva-in-making who already had the hits, the looks, and the moves, but who lacked that one special song.
Though she was already two albums into her career, Rihanna still hadn’t quite found her musical identity until “Umbrella” came out. She’d had big hits, like the dancehall-inflected “Pon De Replay” and the “Tainted Love”-sampling “SOS” (the latter of which earned Rihanna her first #1), but a lot of her music was dismissed as by-the-numbers ‘urban’ pop filler, and it was hard to see her breaking through into pop’s top tier. Things were, of course, about to change, but it’s interesting to imagine what might have happened had history turned out differently. “Umbrella”, after all, wasn’t originally intended for Rihanna – it was first offered to Britney Spears, whose label famously turned it down.
There are a lot of reasons to link Rihanna’s story to Britney’s. Both have industrial-sized music machines working on their behalves. Both used their coming-of-age as a marketing tool (Britney was “not a girl, not yet a woman”, while Rihanna was a “good girl gone bad”). Both had highly publicised personal lives and relationships with other A-listers. And, finally, both had the qualities most valued by record label A&Rs: a hunger to perform (mostly to escape their less-than-favourable surroundings) and very little creative input of their own (at least in the initial phases of their career).
“The song was originally offered to Britney... it seemed strange to the producers that Rihanna – hardly a big star at the time – could end up with such an obvious smash-in-the-making”
John Seabrook’s book Song Machine paints a vivid picture of Rihanna’s rise. When she was first discovered in Barbados, talent scouts weren’t necessarily interested in her voice – it was good, of course, but they were mainly focused on her ‘girl-next-door’ quality. In her auditions, she sang out-of-tune (she didn’t have any formal training), but she nevertheless captivated Jay-Z with “her eyes, this determination.” In other words, Rihanna had that elusive ‘X Factor’ – something that can’t be produced, faked, or covered up with vocal techniques and elaborate stage designs. Still, in 2007, you couldn’t stay on top of the charts simply because you had charisma and ‘the vibe’ – you needed monster hits.
Pop songs today are like a virus, constructed by vast writing teams to work their way into your brain quickly, then spread out far and wide to try and stay there as long as possible. The team who built “Umbrella” included producer Tricky Stewart, songwriter The-Dream, and vocal producer Kuk Harrell. When the song was originally offered to Britney, the elder pop star’s team insisted they didn’t need another song at that time (they were about to unleash the “It’s Britney, Bitch”-fronted “Gimme More”). It seemed strange to the producers that Rihanna – hardly a big star at the time – could end up with such an obvious smash-in-the-making. As Seabrook writes, it was only because Jay-Z and L.A. Reid called them every day for several weeks that the trio finally gave in and agreed to give the song to Rihanna.
The singer herself initially though the song was “weird” and “interesting”. While still staying in the realms of pop music, “Umbrella” marked an apparent change in sonic direction for Rihanna. Her Caribbean days were gone and harder, angrier production was in – there was even a “rock remix” of the song by Blink-182 dummer Travis Barker, which upped the drums level to the maximum (incidentally, Rihanna’s voice always sounds great against heavy rock riffs – just listen to Korn’s version of “BBHMM”).
“‘Umbrella’ topped the UK Top 40 chart for ten weeks, with the start of her chart reign oddly coinciding with an unprecedented burst of rainfall and flooding around the country... leading to The Sun newspaper coining ‘the Rihanna curse’ and advising readers to buy sunnier songs”
Lyrically, “Umbrella” was your typical pop metaphor for being supportive, inviting listeners to stand under the singer’s metaphorical umbrella on a rainy day. It could be heard as either a song about love or a song about friendship, making it even more appealing to a big audience – although some more eccentric listeners read a sinister subtext into the lyrics, insisting they’re actually about demonic posession. The lyrics are pretty clunky (the words, “in the dark you can’t see shiny cars” can never be redeemed), but they’re not really important – instead, it’s all about that magical, post-chorus chanting. The “ella-ella-eh-eh-eh” hook may have seemed contrived or repetitive at first, but it quickly grew on listeners. It also clearly foreshadowed the arrival of Lady Gaga’s trademark stuttering syllable-repeating, paving the way for her “rah-mah-mah-ahs” and “pah-pah-pahs”.
Released to US radio on March 24 and as a single on March 29 that year, “Umbrella” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for seven consecutive weeks and turned Good Girl Gone Bad, Rihanna’s third album and one of her finest, into a multi-platinum event, spawning five more singles and a re-released deluxe version the following year. The song brought Rihanna and Jay-Z a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, and was also nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Meanwhile in the UK, “Umbrella” topped the UK Top 40 chart for ten weeks, with the start of her chart reign oddly coinciding with an unprecedented burst of rainfall and flooding around the country. The same thing happened in New Zealand and Romania, which both experienced violent storms, leading to The Sun newspaper coining ‘the Rihanna curse’ and advising readers to buy sunnier songs in future. Arguably more strange was that Rihanna ended up performing the song at the BRITs with Klaxons – a surreal team-up that’s aged terribly, but which might have made some sense when the UK band were at their critical and commercial peak.
As John Seabrook notes in Song Machine, despite Good Girl Gone Bad’s impressive sales, the biggest achievement of “Umbrella” was that it cemented Rihanna’s status as a singles artist and helped shaped the face of today’s music industry. Thanks to “Umbrella”, the notion that all you need is one killer hook has never been more prevalent. ‘Nobody listens to albums anymore’ is one of the most common sentiments in the music business today, with everyone trying instead to get on the right Spotify playlists and grab listeners that way – hence the flood of tropical house-styled pop singles from seemingly every single pop star on the planet.
The singles strategy worked in her favour, too. Though she’s still releasing albums (she has eight to date), Rihanna is often celebrated for her chameleonic presence: first she was a Caribbean pop artist, then she made pure pop records, then she toyed with EDM pop and turned Scottish producer Calvin Harris into a superstar DJ. She was a key factor behind Sia’s current status as go-to hitmaker with “Diamonds”, and she finally put a ban on her team’s ‘hit factory’ approach and instead released the daring album ANTI last year. With that album, she sat in the executive producer’s chair, wrote most of the lyrics, overlooked the production, and made sure the record sounded nothing like any of her prior offerings. Yet it still scored her a #2 hit “Work” and a #5 “Love on the Brain”. The power of “Work” was in that “workworkworkwork” hook: Rihanna knows what works and what doesn’t.
“If there’s a key line in ‘Umbrella’, it’s perhaps ‘I’ll be here forever.’ Ten years on from its release and Rihanna’s a pop culture icon”
After the runaway success of “Umbrella”, Rihanna became a bona fide icon – but in 2009, her career almost risked being overshadowed by an incident where her then-boyfriend, odious singer Chris Brown, assaulted her before the Grammy Awards. The violence she experienced was very real, made moreso when a police photo of her injuries was leaked to TMZ. Nevertheless, she went on to reclaim her own narrative and prove that she wasn’t a ‘victim’. While artists like Britney either didn’t want to or weren’t allowed to address their darkest moments in their music, Rihanna used her music as a cathartic way to deal with the aftermath of this episode. Her fourth album, 2009’s Rated R, was a far cry from the colorful pop catalogue of Good Girl Gone Bad, instead presenting a version of Rihanna that’s still more or less here today: hurt, but also thoughtful, confident, and fierce on a whole new level.
If there’s a key line in “Umbrella”, it’s perhaps “I’ll be here forever.” Ten years on from its release and Rihanna is a pop culture icon with countless endorsement deals, film and TV roles (she’s just graced the small screen in the iconic role of Marion Crane on Bates Motel and is set to appear in Luc Besson’s Valerian amongst others), and fashion projects under her belt. More importantly, she evolved into the rare sort of artist who can match their commercial success with artistic and cultural credibility and a risk-taking streak. As for “Umbrella”, time has been kind to it: a decade later, it’s still a great jam.