Hard work turns island girl into a pop success

ON POPULAR MUSIC

April 27, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Robyn Rihanna Fenty (you know her as just Rihanna) wants to make it clear that she's more than just another pretty face on the scene. Thank you very much. Although her beguiling green eyes, black Barbie doll features and shapely fat-free frame certainly don't hurt her "star factor," the 18-year-old Barbadian pop singer strives to be much more in an industry where talent isn't all that important, anyway. She seems smart enough to realize that when you have a hot record, you better ride the streak before it cools, which happens all too quickly these days. (Hey, anybody heard from Nina Sky? Lumidee?) So homegirl has put out two albums in less than a year. The new one, A Girl Like Me, hit stores Tuesday, the follow-up to her gold-selling debut, Music of the Sun, which came out in August.

"There was no rush," says Rihanna in her charming, lilting accent. She's calling from the road en route to a Satellite radio interview in Washington. "We just keep it coming. I remember being in the studio passed out. We were still promoting the first album and recording this one. And the hard work has paid off."

Both sets were preceded by a banging single. "Pon de Replay" introduced the Def Jam artist in a major way, becoming last summer's second-biggest single behind Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together." It instantly packed floors in the clubs I fell into. And the same is true about her current single, "SOS," which sits on Billboard's Top 10.

Where "Pon de Replay" was a dancehall-pop concoction that was more about the relentless beat than Rihanna's tinny, snarly vocals, "SOS" thumps with a slight New Wave pulse, and her vocals are more prominent. (The beat, by the way, is actually lifted from Soft Cell's 1981 smash, "Tainted Love.") The cut sounds like something "Bootylicious" Beyonce would do - all sass and swagger. (No surprise there, given that Jay-Z, Rihanna's label boss and executive producer, is the longtime boyfriend of the former Destiny's Child focal point.)

Within a year of the island girl's out-of-nowhere ascent into the pop star galaxy, Rihanna has parlayed her shrewdly produced music (courtesy of Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken of Syndicated Rhythm) into two business ventures. Nike is using "SOS" for the launch of its new women's dance fitness clothing line. And beginning in February, the performer will be the new face of Miss Bisou, a clothing line in JCPenney stores.

"I'm here doing what I've always wanted to do," Rihanna says. "Being able to sing and live out my dreams, it's wonderful."

I wouldn't say that about her new album, though. It's OK. Just skip the ballads. A believable (or bearable) interpreter she is not. As on Music of the Sun, Rihanna is far more appealing when she's riding Caribbean-accented dance-pop grooves. "SOS" and "Break It Off" featuring Sean Paul are standouts. "It's a lot more growth, more progression," the performer says of A Girl Like Me. "It was important, very important for me to show that this time."

Before Rihanna's sudden stardom, she was just a club-loving girl in Barbados - albeit a gorgeous one. Her looks and charisma had won her several beauty and talent contests. The daughter of an accountant mom and garment factory supervisor dad dreamed of being a famous singer. But how could that happen, living on a remote island in the West Indies so far away from the Clive Davises of the world?

Fate stepped in about two years ago. Producer Evan Rogers, who in the previous decade oversaw hits for Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, *NSYNC and others, was vacationing on the island with his wife, a native of Barbados. Somebody told him about Rihanna. After the two met, the New Yorker immediately saw star potential in the emerald-eyed girl.

He called his partner, Carl Sturken, and the guys soon started recording demos with Rihanna. The recordings caught the attention of one Shawn Carter, better known as rap mogul Jay-Z. After an audition at Def Jam's New York offices, Rihanna was signed to a deal on the spot.

"It all happened so fast," she says with a girlish giggle. "Jay-Z was the first celebrity I met. Nobody came to Barbados."

Just as summer flared last year, Def Jam put out "Pon de Replay," an ideal fun-in-the-sun song that quickly rocketed up the pop charts, all the way to No. 2. Now that the weather's warming up, Rihanna is ubiquitous on radio and in clubs again with "SOS."

"For me, it's all about getting better at everything I do," she says. "I don't want to ever be satisfied. I want to keep growing. Who knows what's coming next, you know?"

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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