Though her dulce de leche skin is lineless and her eyes bright as a baby’s even after a long workday, it’s easy to forget that Rihanna is only 21 years old. Perhaps that’s because she has released four hit-filled albums in only four years, making her debut at age 17 seem aeons ago. Or maybe it’s that her performances are a paradigm of cool self-possession; in the video for “Run This Town,” the Grammy-nominated song she recorded with Jay-Z and Kanye West last year, her voice is so full and centered, her panache so effortless, that she makes the world’s biggest hip-hop stars seem little more than backup singers. Finally, of course, it could be because, over the past year, she has endured not only the now infamous abuse by her then boyfriend Chris Brown but also the subsequent leaking of photos of her disfigured face, months of paparazzi stalking and incessant news coverage. The Barbadian-born pop star, however, has her own explanation for her preternatural maturity: “I’ve been paying my own bills since I was 17, living in a foreign country,” she says out of expertly shellacked fuchsia lips that are almost always perched in a half smile. “And I’ve always been a little older than my real age. People always said that to me, and I always felt that in my head.”
This is not to say that Rihanna doesn’t like to have fun. She is full of sass and teasing sarcasm; most sentences end with a playful chuckle. She loves to blast music by rock ’n’ roll band Kings of Leon and play with her toy poodle, Oliver, who, she explains, is under the impression that he’s a big dog who can protect her from intruders at the Los Angeles house she shares with her closest friend from Barbados. The best part of her day, she says, is “when I’m with my glam team getting my hair and makeup done—we talk so much s---!”
Still, this past year in particular, her old soul has served her well. In the months following the night of February 8, when fellow pop star Brown committed the crime that would earn him five years of probation for felony assault, Rihanna refrained from acting out at clubs or in front of paparazzi cameras. She refused to wage any sort of war or publicity campaign in the tabloids. Looking back, she says she is proud of herself for remaining the quiet eye of the storm. “Not talking was a big thing for me,” says Rihanna, whose 13th tattoo, procured on Avenue B in New York’s East Village just the night before this interview, is visible, still raised and reddened, on the right side of her collarbone. It reads never a failure, always a lesson, but backward so she can read it when she looks in the mirror. “I’m glad I didn’t talk to people, because I was able to deal with things in my own way, without saying the wrong things or giving people the wrong impression.”
Now, however, she’s ready to open up, and her latest album, Rated R, released in November to impressive sales, proves that her silence wasn’t due to lack of insight or emotion. The record is a dissertation on her relationship with Brown and its bloody demise, and it has surprised reviewers who had written her off as a talented but manufactured pop sensation. “This was a different type of record for me,” she says in her steady island lilt, sitting in a backstage dressing room after taping a BET show. “It was really personal; it was from me in the most authentic way. It’s like a movie”—hence the title—“in that when I was making this album, every day I was in a different mood. Sometimes I was pissed off, sometimes I was miserable, and every song brings out a different story.” For the first time, she was intimately involved with the lyrics, writing many of them herself and spending time with her collaborators (who included Jeezy, Justin Timberlake and Ne-Yo) explaining her emotions and working on translating them. “It’s still hard to listen to certain songs,” she admits. “Certain ones I couldn’t even record—I’d keep pushing them back [on the schedule].” There was one track in particular she had a hard time facing. Called “The Last Song,” it has lyrics that read like the final goodbye to a great love. “When the label finally said we had 12 hours to turn in the album, I was like, Okay, I have to do it. I just drank some red wine, dimmed the lights, got in the booth and sang it.”
Rated R marks more than just Rihanna’s first real foray as a songwriter; it’s also a major shift stylistically from the lighthearted commercial pop of her past. “I wanted this album to have more bass, more bottom, grimier beats—to be less synth-y/pop-y/dance-y,” she says, wincing, as if to indicate that the hits that made her a star have started to grate on her. “My fans have until now been really young, like five years old to just before adulthood. But now older adults are into my music. Straight men too! Men couldn’t really bump my last album in the car. With this album they can play it and still feel tough.”
Taking control of her own sound was perhaps the next logical step for Rihanna after taking ownership of her look. Her first album, 2005’s Music of the Sun, was full of breezy beats sung by a soft beauty with flowing locks. By her third album, 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad, she’d shed that sweet image, claiming it was never really her but rather what the label wanted her to be. The romantic tresses were replaced by a sharp, jet-black, asymmetrical ’do, and she traded her beachy dresses for black leather. “My stylist Mariel Haenn and I always try to do something sexy but never too girly—we always try to put a little toughness in there,” she says. Today she is wearing harem-pant overalls, which she has paired with a black headpiece that can only be described as a hairnet, and which she somehow manages to make look cool. She explains that the line “I’m such a f---in’ lady” from Rated R’s single “Wait Your Turn” has become like a mantra for her, aesthetically and otherwise.
But despite Rated R’s generally positive reviews, some who have been with Rihanna from the beginning have had a hard time coming to terms with her new independence. “I have to admit, it was a bit of a shock the first time I heard all the songs,” says Evan Rogers, the producer who discovered Rihanna (born Robyn Rihanna Fenty) in 2003 while visiting family in Barbados. A mutual friend set up an informal audition for the young singer, who was then part of a three-girl group, and soon after that, Rogers brought her to live with him and his wife in Connecticut. She stayed two years, during which time they cut her first album, and the two have worked together ever since. “When I first met her, she was painfully shy,” says Rogers, who co–executive produced Rated R but did not write any of the tracks. “This album was sort of like hearing your daughter using profanity for the first time. I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t have concerns about how her core audience would react.”
“When I first worked with her, on her second album, she was very—I don’t want to say obedient, because it sounds like you’re describing a dog—but she would take my suggestions without question,” says Ne-Yo. “She trusted me, which was cool, but I told her that I ultimately wanted to get to a point where she would give me input, where she’d be a collaborator and not a puppet. And now I think we’ve gotten there. She’s showing parts of herself that she didn’t show before because she didn’t want to scare anyone off. She’s experienced some pain now, and it’s helped her grow to a point where she’s able to explore it.”
Whether or not her fans accept this new side of Rihanna, making the album was a cathartic experience for her. “I started to go crazy after about a month in the house,” she says of the time after her split from Brown, “so I went back to work, and the mic was my therapist. With the mic, there were no negative comments, no negative energy.”
It wasn’t that she had no one to turn to. While she has a strained relationship with her Irish-Barbadian father, a former drug addict who was abusive to her mother during Rihanna’s childhood, she talks warmly of her mom, a retired Guyanese-born accountant, and her two brothers, 20 and 13, who she says are unimpressed by her fame. “This whole lifestyle—they want no part of it,” she says, laughing. “My younger one, he’s really smart, like a science nerd, so he’s so not into this.”
She also boasts a strong support system Stateside, citing current and former Def Jam execs Jay-Z, Jay Brown, Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith and L.A. Reid, as well as her managers, the beauty professionals in her entourage and her best friend–roommate, Melissa Forde (whom she’s rarely seen without), as members of her second family. But she says that after the incident, confiding in those who cared about her most was, in some ways, the hardest. “It’s like they are too close to you,” she explains. “When you have to talk about something so painful, they are going to get too emotional. And that wasn’t helping me, because I already felt the same way and I’m looking to not feel like this. I felt like, If I’m going to tell you something and you’re going to have pity for me, then I’m not going to talk to you.”
“It was nerve-wracking,” says Rogers of watching from arm’s length as his protégé went through something so devastating. “There were times I absolutely feared for how much she could handle, when I wondered, Is she going to melt down? Me and my wife were like her surrogate parents. We’ve tried to learn how to let go, but there were definitely many times when we wished we could go back in time to when things were simpler.”
Still, as evidenced by her new tattoo, Rihanna is dedicated to finding a silver lining in her hellish experience. “At first I completely shut down. But now I feel like this happened to me so I could be a voice for young girls who are going through what I went through and don’t know how to talk about it,” she says. “It’s not about Chris, about hurting him or sabotaging his career. I don’t care about that part of it.”
Though she has stated that February 8 was the first time that Brown—with whom she became best friends early in her career, before things turned romantic about two years ago—beat her, she says that in retrospect, there were warning signs. “There were control issues, insecurity,” she says. “When people are insecure they become very controlling and they can get very aggressive and in turn abusive. It doesn’t have to be physical. Like they would say bad stuff to you to make you feel lesser than them just so they would have control in the relationship. It takes a big toll on your emotions and on your everyday life. It changes you.”
Rihanna averts her eyes as she recounts all this and veers into the second person; it’s clearly still tough for her to talk about. In real time, one can see her wavering between embracing what happened—wanting to find purpose in it—and wishing the experience would magically vanish from her own and the public’s memory. Both desires are wrapped up in Rated R: The album can be one positive to arise from her ordeal and also make her famous for her music again rather than for her personal life.
And perhaps not just for her music, either. Rihanna has professed an interest in acting, and her dance-filled videos of yore have given way, with this album, to videos in which she acts out wrenching mini dramas. A December appearance on Saturday Night Live proved she has comedic chops, too—“Shy Ronnie,” the digital short she made with SNL cast member Andy Samberg, became a viral phenomenon on the Web. (For the record, she was not bothered by the night’s two controversial skits that made light of domestic abuse—one about Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren and another about a Staten Island version of Gossip Girl. “Violence should of course be avoided at any cost, but Saturday Night Live is a show that finds humor in every serious situation, so it wasn’t offensive to me in any way,” she says.)
“Just before last year’s incident she was heading into focusing on acting, and that got derailed,” says Rogers. “But that’s what’s next for her—putting in time with an acting coach and getting serious about it. There’s a whole other chapter ahead.”
First, though, she has the rest of Rated R’s press blitz to endure—the week of her W interview she travels to London, then Germany, then back to New York for her W photo shoot, then back across the Atlantic to Paris. She’s also about to embark on a year-and-a-half-long international tour.
But just as she did last spring when she returned to the recording studio, Rihanna, who claims to hate days off, is embracing the intense schedule. Working, ironically, may be her best chance to leave behind the heaviness of the past year and regain some of the carefree youthfulness 21-year-olds are entitled to. And she most certainly doesn’t want her star to dim or her adoring fans—hundreds of whom are gathered outside the BET studios to watch her walk the 10 steps from the door to her waiting SUV—to disappear. She insists that throughout her whole ordeal, she has never once wished herself back in Barbados, living a quiet life. “Oh no, I never fantasize about that,” she says without hesitation. “Because if I were back there, I know I’d be fantasizing about all this.”