Rihanna wears all clothes and boots custom Burberry, skincare products Fenty Skin, beauty products Fenty Beauty. From left: Omar and Alton wear all clothes and accessories Burberry. Umbrella, walking cane and briefcase IbKamaraStudios.Photography Rafael Pavarotti, Styling Ibrahim Kamara

Rihanna: who is she to you?

In an ode to our 30th anniversary cover star, Dazed’s editor-at-large and perpetual Rihanna stan Durga Chew-Bose breaks down why she is the woman we are all willing to wait for.

Taken from the autumn 2021 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

There seems to be a misunderstanding. Whether one likes it or not, there is, in fact, no such thing as waiting for Rihanna. The overture, even when delivered sotto voce from her biggest fans, is inaccurate. Unwieldy. Despite recurring, matter-of-course grievances, nobody, in truth, should be marking time in this manner. It’s a fantastic delusion that neglects the pop star’s signal. Her many signals. How she administers, with regularity, her own hospitable blend of bewildering beauty, play, seduction, good humour, and a superior glow, not to mention a whole regency of intense, generative style.

Isn’t it the case that with each new outfit, Rihanna erects a monument, sends out a flare and lights up group texts? She gives denim an ulterior motive, reinstates the pin-thin heel, and works over the concept of a hat. She is super-fluent with fur trim and at piling on Chanel pearls when going to the store. She can play to her audience in nothing more than ripped cut-offs and the colour pink. She’s out of sight; we know this. When Rihanna considers the shoulder, she creates a total eclipse. When Rihanna shows up in a long yellow train, the red carpet recedes. Silk, we’ve observed, falls differently on Rihanna. It finds its final form.

And yet, the premium of her whereabouts, how she enters and exits – creating a new cosmos each time she steps out of a car or leaves a restaurant – is lost on those busy grumbling for more. When the music comes, whenever that is, the very notion that it ‘arrived late’ will evaporate into a lapsed, prefab calibre of impatience that simply doesn’t suit Rihanna. Because hers is a project of magnanimous proportions, dispensed on her own sweet time.

The order of things is of zero concern, and the notion of an overdue album fails to understand something very simple. Has there ever been a feeling more turned-on and simultaneously unbodied than anticipation? Has there ever been an artist whose everyday performance plays, to perfection, on this type of pleasure? If desire subsists on some measure of disquiet, along with the sport (and business) of a good tease, then being disobliged by Rihanna is, perhaps, the most luxurious value of affection out there. It is she who should be running up the bill. As critic Doreen St. Félix wrote in 2015, “…as a Black woman whose artistic inventiveness outpaces her peers and music executives by what feels like whole years, (Rihanna) will also perpetually be owed”.

To anticipate Rihanna is to experience a lucky break: the unorthodoxy of a pop star who decelerates, observes, and sizes up while still outdistancing everyone in her orbit. The Fenty universe is vast, even speculative (and worth over a billion, it’s been recently reported). The manner in which Rihanna recuses herself from forced cycles of production without withdrawing totally is strategic, sure, but also part of her appeal. The sense of ease that, like a halo, diadems all of her movements, announcements, awards, covers, deals – it brings joy. She’ll design a perfume with notes of rose and tangerine and house it in a rich, amber bottle, but nobody will bother to talk about rose and tangerine. Her smell. Her tang. That’s the premise.

There are those who cite heaven when characterising Rihanna’s smell. Others, well, they are left speechless, blushing. Proximity to her has become an industry in and of itself. She is the ecstatic – the one who gets us all started. The artist and entrepreneur with a swerving, shimmering vision that flies high and swoops down, landing with the studied, soft power of a Yankees cap dipped low and, among other things, a deeply approachable grin. The cameras might chase, but Rihanna is never in a hurry. Her step is paced, leisurely and cool. We are the beneficiaries of what she makes known; these are the terms. Some of us, myself included, find this fun.

In the meantime, we send dispatches to friends. Rihanna’s transmissions offer balance, ballast-like. They declutter and eliminate confusion. They form a point of convergence around a shared love of pinstripe suits with no shirting, or are, simply put, a reminder to reach out. Just a few weeks ago, when I was missing someone I hadn’t spoken to in a long time, I texted her a recent photo of Rihanna smiling, looking over her shoulder. The image was, for want of a better term, summer. In it, Rihanna is wearing a delicate lace tank top, loose jeans and plenty of gold. The image brought to mind an energy from the past, when my friend and I were unversed in so much but well-provided for because we weren’t thinking beyond the extent of that week or that one July in New York. Rihanna, smiling and looking over her shoulder, can set off these sorts of memories. Delight in its purest mode, fixed to an original feeling. 

There are several examples kin to this image – a whole catalogue, really. Looks that don’t mark any big occasion but ricochet off our recall. It’s Rihanna’s incorruptible, photomontage style, her imagined characters released from formula or ruse. Her pink-pixie ode to Maxine Gibson, courtside at a Clippers game. Her slate of bucket hats; her thing for varsity jackets and oversized coats. The complete gymnastics of a leopard-print catsuit; the ballad of a Swarovski gown, brined in a mythic score of crystals. And of course, Rihanna’s Venus-inflected account of glamour. A diamond choker and pale-teal bustier, for instance, swathed in a tulle cover-up, are neither Marilyn nor muse, but attentive to Rihanna’s sartorial repute; she’ll often add full-sleeve gloves as if to say, I’ve arrived, but I’m not staying long.

When ANTI, Rihanna’s eighth studio album, was released nearly six years ago, I sat on my couch and listened to it, song after song. As for many people that night, my phone screen was bright with the album’s red-stained artwork featuring an illustration of baby Rihanna crowned and holding a black balloon. I texted my friend as we listened together, sharing our reactions, trying to express with words the sensation of a sound that, like anything new, was not always immediate, most times imperfect, but pressing and discoverable.

The album was puckered; it slowed and just as quick, peeled rubber. It was fitful but so inward, confessional, and seared. The way Rihanna sang “This whiskey got me feelin’ pretty…” had the familiar hold of a late-night voicemail; the vibrational, submerged bump that opens “Needed Me” was mighty, like a pitter-patter levered wide open with a crowbar. “Love on the Brain” was the kind of ballad any listener acquainted with wrecked, extinguishing love might receive nostalgically. A few songs loitered like Rihanna was just passing the time. But my friend and I stayed unguarded. The album’s roughhewn qualities were a mystery instead of a sure thing, and isn’t that nice? To delay a good thing – and ANTI is a great thing – is such a gift, because doubt is fertile ground. Doubt, in theory, provokes. Doubt, in true Rihanna design, is coy.

ANTI was a full house of moods, some of which were, in that moment, unavailable to me, but eventually found their purpose at a party or in a car ride home. It was an album, as well, for listening to alone. Its tentative, volatile tone continues to be moving because Rihanna’s prepossessing talent for switching us on is hardly ever overworked. Songs that ripen and pay court to our solitary experiences just as much as when we long for company or a crowd, and then again when we choose to dip out early without saying goodbye. She has proven that her music gains on itself, and while said in jest, a widely held opinion is that ANTI remains the album of the year, regardless of the year. ANTI is idealised, because it appeared shapelessly only to develop into its own deluxe holding pattern. It was the future, then, and is still incandescent now.

So there. Rihanna’s big enterprise – her Billboard-charting music, her beauty front office, her designs and who she sends down the runway – all of it, is unbothered though never fooled. She’s always paying attention. When the new album arrives, you can trust that it will disorganise and organise us all. I can’t wait. I can wait. Revisiting Rihanna’s work is like experiencing some matter of extrasensory affluence, either meeting you where you are or getting you where you need to go. Her musical intermission, if one can call it that, is anything but. We won’t see it coming. She’ll just… take place. Her ambushing wattage and puttylike sound. Her sublimity and pearls for a trip to the store.

Hair Yusef at Factory Downtown, make-up Daniel Sallstrom at MA Worldgroup using Fenty Skin and Fenty Beauty, nails Maria Salandra at Art Department, set design Ibby Njoya at New School, photographic assistants JohnGriffith, Jason Acton, Tom Maltbie, styling assistants Mirko Pedone, Andra-Amelia Buhai, on-set styling assistants Cornelius Lafayette, Courtney Morston, Alexandra Kim, Julia Virkler, hair assistant Dhairius Thomas, make-up assistant Meghan Yarde, set design assistants Lui Kobashi, CJ Somavia, Yuma Shishido, digital operator Alonzo Maciel, production Dana Brockman at Viewfinders, production coordinators Molly O’Brien, Eliza Hoyland, production assistants Sam Miller, Chris Olsen, Ruby Deluca

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