No Reason To Pretend is a weekly column by Stephen Kearse that explores the intersection of hip-hop and pop culture.
The barrier between singing and rapping has always been more categorical than empirical. In fact, given the rap’s ties to disco and its long-running proximity to R&B, the barrier may actually never have existed. Yet, this shaky distinction is enshrined in our award categories, in our iTunes labels, and in our minds. Artists aren’t as committed to these taxonomies as listeners are, but that doesn’t stop listeners from consciously and unconsciously typecasting artists as singing even when they’re clearly rapping.
I suspect this cognitive dissonance is more immediately a product of rooted genre expectations — rappers should rap and singers should sing — but on a deeper level I think it illustrates how intimately we relate to artists, especially pop stars. When we emotionally invest in artists we’re not just latching onto their music. We’re embracing their images and their personas and their style. We’re talking, to use the coy language of courtship, and we assume we know what and with whom we’re dealing with. So anything unexpected is grounds for dismissal.
But Rihanna has little concern for anyone’s expectations. She’s endured backlashes for her music not being Caribbean enough, being too Caribbean, being too vulgar, being too poppy, being too vulnerable, being too cold, and so on. But she never overcorrects or panders. She just continues doing what she wants. That freedom exists in her music at large, but when she raps her already forthright personality is condensed into a rush of confidence, and, strangely, grace. Most importantly, she’s a good rapper, flowing, breathing, and rhyming well, and always maintaining presence.
What follows is a brief list of some her highlights as a rapper and what makes them work so well.