COVER STORY FROM V MAGAZINE ISSUE 95, SUMMER 2015
PHOTOGRAPHY STEVEN KLEIN
FASHION CARLYNE CERF DE DUDZEELE
TEXT PATRIK SANDBERG
COVER STORY FROM V MAGAZINE ISSUE 95, SUMMER 2015
PHOTOGRAPHY STEVEN KLEIN
SOMEHOW IN THE LAST THREE YEARS, THE FASHION WORLD BECAME RIHANNA’S. BETWEEN HER UNMISSABLE INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT, EDITORIALS WITH TOP PHOTOGRAPHERS, UBIQUITY IN THE FRONT ROW OF PARIS, AND HISTORY-MAKING CAMPAIGNS, THE BARBADIAN BEAUTY WENT FROM NUMBER-ONE HITMAKER TO FULL-TIME STYLE ICON—OR SO IT SEEMED. NOW SHE’S DROPPING HER EIGHTH ALBUM, AND SHE’S READY TO RECLAIM HER SPOT AT THE TOP. DON’T ACT LIKE YOU FORGOT: RIH CALLS THE SHOTS, SHOTS, SHOTS!
“THIS IS SO STUPID.”
Rihanna, in a platinum-blonde wig, bikini bottoms, and a half-shirt, surveys selects from her fashion shoot with Steven Klein and Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele. As surly as her reaction might sound, her vocabulary actually expresses an ecstatic level of approval. “Nasty” is a compliment in Rihannese. Early in the planning process for this cover story, the star told V she wanted to work with Klein in the interest of doing “something sick.” Mission accomplished?
“Sublime!” Cerf de Dudzeele says, for her part. “Her nonchalance plus her attitude plus her cat eyes plus her voice—to die for—equals perfection!” The shoot was the fashion editor’s first collaboration with Klein, she recalls, since the two worked on a Gianfranco Ferré campaign twenty years ago. Their reunion was a brainchild of Rihanna herself, who conceived the shoot with her creative team from the jump—a story many months in the making, and one that only came to fruition when the star’s exacting demands perfectly coalesced. From hair and makeup to location, stylist, photographer, and concept, it’s RiRi’s way or the highway.
On set with her tight-knit crew of friends and collaborators, Rihanna speaks in what can best be described as a Bajan form of Polari. With an island cadence that bounces off the tongue like a rubber ball, she’s prone to cracking inside jokes while emitting a self-possessed confidence that’s nearly as intimidating as her beauty is transfixing. In a 2012 press junket interview searchable on YouTube, the Barbadian stunner spoke of having to adjust her natural accent for the sake of promotion. “In business conversations you want people to understand you very, very clearly,” she said then. It makes sense, therefore, that during the two and a half years since she released her last studio album, Unapologetic, Rihanna has preferred to communicate mostly through the medium that speaks clearest for her: that of image.
First, there’s the Instagram account @badgalriri, where Queen Rih imperiously holds court to the tune of 17 million followers. One minute she’s snapping a selfie to show off her latest pair of Adam Selman sunglasses, and the next she’s posting photos of her adorable baby cousin Majesty. Recently she used the platform to promote her DreamWorks Animation film Home (rated PG)…right before flipping off the camera with A$AP Rocky in a sly nod to her upcoming album (her eighth), referred to thus far in the media simply as R8. Her selfie-expression is a symptom of her signature dichotomy: a fresh-faced, relatable, family-oriented girl who’s simultaneously a defiant social media anarchist. On one hand, she’ll play the game and cater to her licenses and promotional deals, while on the other she’s giving a middle finger to the masses. But as Rihanna would tell it, she’s just keeping it real.
“I run away from anything that does not stimulate me,” Rihanna explains. “I often find myself gravitating toward the underground. There is a certain creative freedom there that you can’t experience anywhere else.” When asked about her regard for privacy, she shoots back, “Do I even give a dick about that anymore?”
In an essay for The Sunday Times in 2013, arch feminist critic Camille Paglia compared Rihanna—and the photogenic virtuosity she uses to send messages of rebellion, seduction, and revenge—to the late Princess Diana. In that widely circulated op-ed, Paglia noted that despite their shared mastery of the medium, Diana had less control over the paparazzi who transmitted her images than Rihanna wields with today’s Instagram, resulting in a stunning live feed governed through impulse and mood.
Perhaps the combination of strength and vulnerability demonstrated by both public figures is what keeps us all so entranced with the artist who once galvanized nightclubs around the planet by asking us to make her feel like “the only girl in the world.” It’s certainly proven no hindrance when it comes to booking fashion campaigns. For S/S ’14, Rihanna was the face of Balmain, cast by her friend, the designer Olivier Rousteing (who has called her “today’s version of a supermodel”). For S/S ’15, she’s starring in Dior’s Secret Garden campaign series, shot by Klein, on location at Versailles. The classical backdrop notwithstanding, the campaign made history of its own through Rihanna’s casting, which made her the first black woman to be the face of Dior in the house’s 70 years—a factoid as unsettling as it is triumphant. But perhaps no image of Rihanna ricocheted across the cultural landscape with greater velocity than that of her in the jaw-dropping custom Adam Selman dress she wore to accept her CFDA Fashion Icon Award last year. Sheer and made completely of crystals, the museum-worthy garment cemented the reason she was there, capping off quite an extraordinary fashion era for the then-26-year-old girl who immigrated from the small parish of Saint Michael on the southwest coast of Barbados. Her impressive foray into fashion in recent years has no doubt been mesmerizing, but it’s also been a glittering distraction from the fact that she’s been conspicuously absent from the radio for the longest period in her 10 years as a pop star.
Since 2005’s Music of the Sun through 2012, Rihanna turned out nearly an album a year. She’s charted a whopping 56 singles, sold over 150 million records, gone platinum six times, and hit the top of the charts 13 times, tying her with Michael Jackson for having the third most number-one songs in history, the youngest to have ever achieved so many so fast. (Mariah Carey and Elvis are tied for number two, and the Beatles maintain the top bragging rights…for now.) She’s also credited as the highest-selling digital artist of all time with a net worth that is valued at around $90 million.
“I didn’t actually take time off,” Rihanna clarifies in an email. “The past two years is the hardest I’ve ever worked. I’ve been working on two albums, an animated film, shooting for multiple magazines, designing for Puma and Stance [socks], a new line of fragrances, a summer tour, I launched my first annual Diamond Ball at the end of last year, and I’ve also been developing several projects to be revealed in the near future.” Snap.
Home, a DreamWorks Animation film Rihanna voice acted in earlier this spring alongside Jennifer Lopez and Jim Parsons, gave fans a taste of new material, albeit of the more family-friendly variety, on tracks like “Dancing in the Dark,” “Towards the Sun,” and “As Real as You and Me.” But Rihanna draws a clear distinction between that project and her new LP. “The Home record was a soundtrack I curated especially for the film,” she says. “My eighth studio album was a place for me to completely express myself creatively with no boundaries and try anything that I wanted.”
It’s clear that fans are fiending for the album material for that very reason. When she cryptically Instagrammed a Paolo Roversi–lensed record sleeve with the caption “#March26,” many of her fans stayed up the entire night before, speculating on Twitter about when her new song, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” would hit. The track, her second release from the new LP, expanded on a stripped-down aesthetic first revealed with “FourFiveSeconds,” featuring Kanye West and Paul McCartney—albeit to a more club-ready beat. When that first song hit the Web earlier this year by way of an Inez and Vinoodh–directed black-and-white clip, it wasn’t the big, stomping return some might have expected. Wearing simple denim looks and little makeup, Rihanna gave a sensitive performance of a bare-bones ballad about—of all things—the working week, while Sir Paul strummed along on acoustic guitar. Is Rihanna going full-Springsteen on us?
“The thing that made me fall in love with [‘FourFiveSeconds’] is the juxtaposition of the music and the lyrics,” Rihanna says. “When you read the lyrics it’s a completely different song than what you are hearing. The music is easygoing, but the lyrical content is very loud and in your face. In performing this, the key was to make sure the aggression wasn’t lost.” West serves as one of many producers on the LP, and he may have gleaned a thing or two from his time spent with the legendary sonic reducer Rick Rubin, evidenced by the track’s prosaic return to values. When the trio took to the Grammy Awards stage in February, the power of the song and the strength of Rihanna’s vocals brought the house to its knees—even more so than the massive, pink, chiffon Giambattista Valli gown she stormed the red carpet in hours earlier. But in a late-March performance of “Bitch Better…” for the iHeart Radio Music Awards, Rihanna emerged from a blacked-out helicopter in bright green Versace regalia, fortelling more opulence to come.
As for the rest of R8, Rihanna’s real power will be in reminding us of her distinction as a vocalist, with her scratchy verses, wailing peaks, and chesty depths, which harness new levels of grit and ferocity—no need for the bells and whistles of her previous productions. In this regard, the record achieves something rare: it maintains Rihanna’s ubiquitous pop dominance while stripping away the excess to arrive at something disarmingly straightforward. “Dude, I’m in love with my interludes,” she says. “This one called ‘James Joint’ is on constant repeat. [The album is] soulful and aggressive, whether it’s lyrically, musically, or just the tone of my voice.” It’s also basic, in the best sense of the word, which is just one thing that’s changed for her in the past three years.
“Well, for starters, I grew 10 pounds heavier,” Rihanna laughs. “But besides that, I keep challenging myself personally and professionally. I spend a lot of time analyzing every aspect of my life, trying to constantly improve. As a result I’ve become way more focused and intolerant. I don’t have the patience to waste time.”