In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.
Rihanna sounded like she was in control. Icy mastery was central to her public persona, and it affected the way her songs worked. The public-character version of Rihanna did not suffer fools gladly. If a boyfriend messed around on her, she was happy to slow-cook his soul, as on “Take A Bow.” If Rihanna opened her heart to someone, as on “Umbrella,” then her statements of support became more powerful with the stony strength of her character behind them. Even on playful club-pop tracks like “SOS,” Rihanna always sounded like the coolest person in the room.
But Robyn Rihanna Fenty was not always in control. Nobody ever is. That’s just how it is. The dissonance between Rihanna’s persona and her real life became an unspoken undercurrent early in 2009, when Rihanna became the center of a news story that she could not command. On the night before the Grammys, Rihanna’s boyfriend Chris Brown, someone who’s been in this column a couple of times, mercilessly beat her. She was mad that he’d been secretly texting with someone else, and he reacted with shocking physical violence. He repeatedly punched her in the face. He held her in a headlock until she couldn’t breathe. When she tried to get away by scratching his face, he bit her fingers. Eventually, she got away. The next day, Chris Brown turned himself in to police, and he was charged with assault and criminal threats.
Soon after the attack, Rihanna was victimized in a very different way. LA cops leaked a photo of her battered face to TMZ, and that photo was soon all over the internet. It was shocking; she looked like she’s been mauled by a bear. Rihanna hated seeing that picture out there. In a difficult Diane Sawyer interview, she said that she was “embarrassed” and “humiliated” over the leak: “Who likes seeing their face like that?… I get angry, all over again, every time I see it. The whole thing plays back in my head. So I don’t like to see it.”
Rihanna grew up in an abusive household, and she didn’t want to become some sort of domestic-violence spokesperson, but she was unwillingly thrust into that role anyway. A different pop star might’ve taken time off after the attack, but this was not the Rihanna way. Rihanna was a ruthless hit machine before the attack, and she and her handlers were determined to return her to that status. Rihanna’s first three albums came out in a span of less than two years. The gap between Good Girl Gone Bad, the album that made Rihanna into a superstar, and Rated R, her first record after the assault, was more than two years. Rihanna didn’t want it to be any longer than that.
When she was putting together her next album, Rihanna couldn’t ignore the assault. That wasn’t an option. Instead, she turned text into subtext. Rated R became an album about strength, determination, triumph over adversity. Rihanna never sings about Chris Brown directly, but the memory of the attack lingers on the record. Sonically and thematically, it’s dark. Some songs are full of brickwalled rock guitars. Others pull from the sound of dubstep, the bass-heavy dance subgenre that was still, at the time, part of the UK underground. Over those tracks, Rihanna sang about laughing into the abyss. The album has aged remarkably well; it stands today as one of Rihanna’s best. But Rated R didn’t have an immediate smash.
On the first few singles from Rated R, Rihanna projected a steely, world-weary take on her old persona. Those singles were hits, but they weren’t the all-conquering smashes that so many of Rihanna’s past singles had been. Instead, the big hit on Rated R turned out to be the album’s most atypical track. It turned out that America didn’t really want to hear Rihanna sing about surviving violence. We wanted to hear her sing about a guy with a big dick.
Rihanna’s first single after the assault and the leaked photo wasn’t her own. Instead, Jay-Z, the man who’d signed Rihanana to Def Jam and who’d rapped the opening verse on “Umbrella,” brought her in to sing the towering, triumphant hook on his song “Run This Town.” This was the same thing that Rihanna had done, more or less, on T.I.’s “Live Your Life” the previous year. On “Run This Town,” she sounds even better. She’s eternal and imperious, but it’s still not really her song. Nevertheless, “Run This Town” was a huge hit, and it’s remained a big part of the Rihanna repertoire. (“Run This Town” peaked at #2. It’s a 9.)
“Run This Town” came out in August 2009, six months after Chris Brown’s assault. By that point, Rihanna was deep into the Rated R sessions. LA Reid assembled an A-list songwriting camp, with people like Justin Timberlake, Ne-Yo, will.i.am, The-Dream, Tricky Stewart, and future Number Ones artist Robin Thicke all working to generate Rihanna tracks. The first single to come out of those efforts was a Ne-Yo joint. “Russian Roulette” is a stark, wounded track about embracing oblivion, and it stood in stark contrast to the celebratory dance-pop songs that were flooding the airwaves. Maybe that’s why “Russian Roulette” wasn’t a huge hit, or maybe the song never would’ve had that kind of mass appeal. “Russian Roulette” ultimately peaked at #9. (It’s a 7.)
Rihanna’s next single was a little more anthemic, but it still wasn’t exactly upbeat. Rihanna wrote “Hard” with The-Dream and Tricky Stewart. Over a stormy, churning beat with a guest verse and ad-libs from trap overlord Young Jeezy, Rihanna sang about her own toughness and affirmed that “that Rihanna reign just won’t let up.” That statement would prove entirely true, but “Hard” wouldn’t be the song that reaffirmed her superstardom. Instead, it peaked at #8. (It’s another 7.)
Nobody expected “Rude Boy” to be the big hit from Rated R, but in retrospect, it makes sense. In an era of frothy electro-pop, “Rude Boy” was the one track where Rihanna sounded truly unbothered, where her confidence reached new levels. It’s a nasty song that finds its own way to one-up the hedonism of the moment. There’s no double entendre on the “Rude Boy” chorus, no innuendo. Rihanna could only possibly be singing about one thing: “Come on, rude boy boy, can you get it up? Come on, rude boy boy, is you big enough?”
The term “rude boy” goes back decades, and it’s taken on a few different meanings. From the beginning, though, a rude boy was a Black Jamaican street guy, a young man who exists outside of the societal rulebook. The term was always part of reggae culture, from its early-’60s beginnings. In the ’70s, white British punk bands like the Clash started playing around with the term and its iconography, especially when they were experimenting with reggae. At the same time, biracial British ska-revival bands like the Specials adapted the term, and their fans started using it to describe a different subculture.
In the ’90s, high-school dorks like me threw around “rude boy” to describe people who were into the predominantly sunny, peppy, punk-adjacent ska that was popping at the time. We only had the vaguest idea of the term’s roots, but we acted like it belonged to us. It didn’t. “Rude boy” and its iconography continued within dancehall culture, and Jamaican rude boys couldn’t possibly have had less to do with suburban white kids in skinny ties. Rihanna came from Barbados and got her start singing dancehall-flavored pop. It was Rihanna’s idea to come up with a track called “Rude Boy,” and she effectively reclaimed the phrase. If you ever wore Toasters and Moon Records patches on your bomber jacket, then Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” is not about you. Sorry.
Rihanna co-wrote “Rude Boy” with a bunch of collaborators — some new, some who’d been working with her for years. The hooks and melodies mostly came from the Oklahoma-born singer and songwriter Ester Dean, whose career was just getting going. In 2005, Dean was living in Atlanta and working as a nurse’s aid. One night, she went to see ’80s funk greats the Gap Band, and she sang along with gusto. The-Dream and Tricky Stewart happened to be at that show, and they were drawn to the sound of her voice. Within a few days, she was writing songs with them. In 2008, Dean scored her first chart hit when she co-wrote “Like Me,” a song for the reality TV girl group Girlicious, which just missed the Hot 100. Soon after, she would help write a lot of songs that did a lot better.
Over the next year or two, Ester Dean was involved in writing singles for tons of big artists, including T.I., Mary J. Blige, Ciara, and Flo Rida. Dean also recorded music on her own, and while she never released an album, she reached #38 with the 2009 soundtrack single “Drop It Low.” The song was on the charts around the same time that Dean was working on Rihanna’s Rated R, and Rihanna evidently didn’t mind that “Drop It Low” featured Chris Brown. (We’ll see a lot more of Ester Dean’s songwriting work in this column.)
Ester Dean came up with most of the lyrics and melody for “Rude Boy,” and the Norwegian team Stargate, longtime Rihanna collaborators who have already been in this column a bunch of times, produced the track. They had help. Stargate’s co-producer on “Rude Boy” was Rob Swire, an Australian dance musician who’d had some success as the leader of the dance-rock band Pendulum. Pendulum never meant anything in the US, but they were pretty big in the UK for a while.
In 2018, Stargate’s Tor Hermansen told Entertainment Weekly about making the “Rude Boy” beat with Rob Swire: “This was right when we started experimenting with the combination of trancier EDM sounds and slower hip-hop beats. ‘Rude Boy’ was one of the earliest examples of those sounds coming together.” To me, “Rude Boy” sounds like a cleaned-up take on the dancehall-influenced hipster party music of the late ’00s. It’s got the twinkling synths of circa-2010 dance-pop, but it’s also got a spacious sensuality that comes straight from reggae.
When Rihanna told Stargate and Ester Dean that she wanted a song called “Rude Boy,” they went straight to work. When Rihanna checked back in later that day, the track was mostly done. Hermansen: “When we played it for her, she was just blown away: ‘Did you guys just do this?’ She was the one who really fought for that record and knew what it was. I don’t think even we knew what it was.” Rihanna and her regular vocal producer Makeba Riddick wrote the bridge. Stargate didn’t think “Rude Boy” would make the cut for Rated R, since it didn’t have anything to do with the sound of the rest of the album, but Rihanna insisted on it.
Today, it’s easy to hear why Rihanna loved “Rude Boy” so much. For one thing, the track stacks hypnotic hooks on top of each other. On a cold, dramatic album, “Rude Boy” hits like a beam of light. The track doesn’t demand too much of Rihanna vocally, but it’s built with her presence in mind. On Ester Dean’s demo, the song is already fully formed, and Dean’s voice has a ton of its own raspy, smoky personality. But “Rude Boy” works even better with Rihanna’s blank, expressionless chanting. She sounds cool as hell, and her music always works best when she can radiate that coolness.
In Rihanna’s hands, “Rude Boy” is a breezy, low-stakes seduction. Rihanna sings about surrendering control — “Tonight, I’ma let you be the captain/ Tonight, I’ma let you do your thing” — but she still sounds like she’s the boss. Rihanna sings about wanting rough sex, and she sounds like she’ll be disappointed if this guy doesn’t properly deliver: “I like the way you touch me there/ I like the way you pull my hair/ Babe, if I don’t feel it, I ain’t faking.” What she want want wants is what you want want want. Give it to her, baby, like boom boom boom.
In the calm insistence of “Rude Boy,” I hear a more developed version of the persona that Rihanna’s still rocking with today. It’s a low-effort track, an easy groove. Rihanna sings explicitly about sex, and she doesn’t sound like she’s getting away with something. There’s no wink to the track. She’s matter-of-fact, and she doesn’t seem to care what reaction she gets. That’s the Rihanna who became a true pop-chart titan. Rihanna had already developed her style and her image, but with “Rude Boy,” she sounded more effortless than ever before.
Rihanna looks cool as hell in the “Rude Boy” video. Future Queen & Slim director Melina Matsoukas builds an ’80s-style collage aesthetic, with Rihanna grinding on speaker-stacks and riding on lions while living in what appears to be the world’s most tastefully designed Trapper Keeper. It looks like a big-budget gloss on MIA’s video for her 2007 single “Boyz.” MIA collaborator Diplo jumped on Twitter, which was still pretty new back then, to accuse Rihanna of ripping MIA off, and he even posted a mash-up of “Rude Boy” and “Boyz” that I can’t find online anywhere now. I’m guessing that’s why Diplo has never gotten to work with Rihanna. (Years later, Diplo said that he once played a track for Rihanna and that she dismissed it immediately: “This sounds like a reggae song at an airport.” Ice cold.)
Rihanna was definitely aware of MIA’s whole thing. When I saw her on Kanye West’s Glow In The Dark tour in 2008, she covered MIA’s “Paper Planes,” which hadn’t yet become a big hit. (“Paper Planes” is now MIA’s highest-charting single as lead artist; eventually peaking at #4. It’s a 10. As a guest, MIA will eventually appear in this column.) But MIA and Diplo’s style was its own form of cut-and-paste. It seems more likely to me that MIA and Rihanna were drawing on the same visual touchpoints: Keith Haring, reggae album covers, late-’80s hip-hop fashion.
In any case, those ripoff accusations didn’t hurt Rihanna. “Rude Boy” finally gave her another gigantic hit — one that wasn’t quite on the level of “Umbrella,” but that was at least breathing that same air. While Rihanna has essentially moved on from some of her older hits, “Rude Boy” has remained with her. She performed a few seconds of the song when she played the Super Bowl Halftime Show earlier this year, though she didn’t sing the original version of the song. Instead, The FADER reports that she went with a remix from the teenage Brazilian baile funk producer Klean — a cool choice for a cool song.
“Rude Boy” really got the boulder rolling again for Rihanna. Pretty soon, people wouldn’t really think about her and Chris Brown. People would just think about her. It won’t be long before Rihanna is in this column again.