At this year’s MTV Video Music Awards Rihanna is set to receive the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, joining the likes of Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Madonna, Taylor Swift and more. It’s solid company; a crew she more than deserves to be a part of. Throughout her career, starting all the way back in 2005 with the video for “Pon de Replay,” Rihanna has proven herself time and again to be a unstoppable force in the medium of music videos. She’ll kill a performance video, she’ll crush your narrative-driven video. Rihanna will come across as every variation of sexy imaginable and will do so with the kind of strength and confidence that has become her modus operandi.
Yet of all the videos she has produced – and there’s been over 30 of them, there are seven that stand out, seven that could be considered essential entries in her catalog. They don’t define her per say and it’s not as if they are the greatest videos she’s done. They are simply the stand-outs, entry points for fans looking to explore her diverse and interesting catalog. Consider them directional signs or benchmarks; the seven Rihanna videos that everyone should watch, everyone should know, everyone should bow down to.
“We Found Love” featuring Calvin Harris
The old narrative device of starting off with the aftermath of something is one that almost always works and it definitely does in this video. The first part of the video crosscuts images of Rihanna and her boo in happier times and then in decidedly not happy times. Then the video kicks off and we see these crazy kids out having themselves a great time. But wait, it’s a “great time” in that the undercurrent of danger is pulsating beneath them. Maybe it’s this “hopeless place” Rihanna is singing about, but either way, the relationship is toxic and the video is a whirlwind demonstration of a baseless relationship fueled by drugs and destructive tendencies. All in four and half minutes, which is an important reminder of how good music videos can be when they want to.
“Stay” featuring Mikky Ekko
One of the biggest hits off of her 2012 album Unapologetic, “Stay” was a left turn of sorts for Rihanna. It was restrained and meditative. So it made sense that the somber tone of the video would nail and echo the equally somber tone of the song. Both are wonderfully bare-bones and simple. Those are two words you wouldn’t normally associate with Rihanna. She looks as beautiful as the song sounds throughout the video, spending most of her time in a bathtub deep in a rut of reflection and possibly regret or remorse. It might be the realest she has ever looked in a video. Like the song, the video sticks with you.
Released in 2010, “Rude Boy,” is a video splashed and drenched with a wash of colors and life. From a visual perspective, it’s about as far removed from “Stay” as humanely possible. The video is a showcase for one of the many sides of Rihanna and it’s a side that’s in full effect. Both Rihanna and the video itself are bright, lively, memorable and fun. In the wrong hands, it could have gone off the rails, could’ve been considered cheesy, lame or played out. But Rihanna doesn’t just sell it, she freaking owns it. That’s what Rihanna does — she owns things. Rihanna isn’t one for half measures. Don’t forget that.
“What’s My Name” featuring Drake
Every great love story has a beginning and “What’s My Name” is the beginning of Drake and Rihanna’s. I even like to imagine that their story first started when they came across each other in a New York City bodega. It’s not as if the video is especially memorable, but it is when you consider it the origin story of one of music’s most powerful and creative duos. Since “What’s My Name” came out in 2010, Drake and Rihanna have collaborated numerous times, and each duet has caused the world to stop and take notice. The video gets points for historical importance, as well as evidence that hey, you too might be able to meet that special someone in a bodega or grocery store.
“Umbrella” featuring Jay Z
I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that “Umbrella” was our first glimpse at the Rihanna we know and love today. This goes for both the song and the video. The video shows Rihanna full of confidence, sexiness and swagger. It also has a whiff of youthful exuberance and enjoyment, something Rihanna still maintains to this day. Sure the “Umbrella” video is relatively tame to some of the videos that would follow it, but it’s like my Gramp always said, you need to crawl before you can become one of the sexiest women in the world. Gramp was a church-going man.
“Hard” featuring Jeezy
Dude, she rocks an army helmet with Mickey Mouse ears and I’m not even sure it’s the craziest, wildest image in this video for the song from Rihanna’s 2009 album Rated R. Either way, it’s the strangest propaganda for the military they never produced. Looking fierce as a general one minute and looking devastating as an extra from Mad Max: Fury Road the next minute, this video might be one of the singer’s most bizarre, but also one of her most fun. You know how sometimes you watch something, could be a movie, TV show or in this case, a music video, and you just really wish you could have been in the meeting where they kicked around ideas? This is definitely one of those times.
“B*tch Better Have My Money”
It’s always a special thing when an established artist takes things up a notch, and that is exactly what Rihanna did with the video for “B*tch Better Have My Money.” It’s as if she pooled together every notion, thought and idea of her and threw it all into one remarkable seven minute video that you should totally never watch at work. Like never. Even if you work from home and the only other person around is your cat. The video is sexy, dangerous, enticing and intriguing — all of which could describe Rihanna at any given moment. And all of which are reasons why she deserves that award tonight. You could even interpret this video as her assertion that she deserved to join the Vanguard club. Even if it wasn’t, it worked.