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.
Rihanna: “Pon De Replay” (2005)
Pon de Replay was Rihanna’s first single, so it necessarily set the stage for her image as well as her genre affiliations. It would be disingenuous to call this a rap song given its clear dancehall origins (from the composition, to Rihanna’s unvarnished accent, to the song’s content), but Rihanna’s delivery is delightfully percussive. On the bridge, “Come run run run run / Everybody move, run / Let me see you move, and / Rock it to the groove, done,” she hits the downbeat perfectly and flits in and out of the pocket without breaking stride. I doubt anyone ever has asked the DJ to run back this specific part of the song, but from the jump Rihanna showed a knack for compressing syllables without sacrificing rhythm or even melody.
Rihanna: “Hard” (Feat. Jeezy) (2009)
Rihanna had undergone a few redefinitions by the time “Hard” was released (just look at her album titles up to that point: Music Of The Sun, A Girl Like Me, Good Girl Gone Bad, Rated R), so in some sense this song is a natural progression of her shedding her shy, good girl persona. More than just pop pageantry though, “Hard” has some real swagger. Rihanna’s rhymes pendulate between the beat, sometimes coming in at the top of the bar and other times coming in right in the middle. This starting and stopping is mostly a product of her occasionally slipping into melody, but that just shows how many hats she’s wearing. “Russian Roulette,” which was the first single from Rated R, was received as Rihanna’s response to Chris Brown’s assault, but that song has nothing on “Hard’s punchy opening lines: “They can say whatever, I’ma do whatever / No pain is forever / …Yup, you know this.”
Rihanna: “Raining Men” (Feat. Nicki Minaj) (2010)
I’ll start by saying that Nicki runs this track. Clearly. But it’s still worth dwelling on because this is one of the first songs where RiRi raps an entire verse, and it’s pretty interesting how she approaches the track. The arrangement is a minefield of sounds, and the metronome makes it very choppy, but Rihanna jumps right in, riding the beat and then easing into a casual groove. Her verses are short because the hook and the bridge are the song’s centerpieces, but hear how she plays with her pitch. “Who you think you getting with that ‘Hi let me freak ya’ ? / You got me mistaken thinking you gon get it easy” she asks, elevating her voice for the end rhymes. Like the bright red hair she had at the time, this flourish is minimal but cheeky. And I think that gets to the heart of what makes her a compelling rapper. Rihanna’s not interested in pushing the limits of language; she uses language to push you (away). It’s cocky and it’s distancing, but it’s totally mesmerizing.
Rihanna: “Pour It Up” (2012)
“Hard” and “Pour It Up” are both trap songs by texture more than content. They crib the affects of trap– hardness, numbness — and distill them into an armor that Rihanna flaunts effortlessly. “Pour It Up” is more effective though because Rihanna weaponizes that armor. The deadpanned repetition of “I still got my money” is ice cold and it really inverts the strip club anthem as a genre. Strip club appreciation songs tend to be about men appreciating strippers, maybe even respecting them, but ultimately still maintaining power through gazing. Rihanna goes to the strip club and drops stack after stack, sipping lean and getting wasted as the men who came to see strippers slowly turn to see how much fun she’s having and how much attention the strippers are giving her and not them (“All I see is signs, all I see is dollar signs”). Strippers have agency and Rihanna has power. What do men have? They don’t get mentioned.
Kendrick Lamar: “Loyalty” (Feat. Rihanna) (2017)
Rihanna did a decent amount of rapping between “Pour It Up” and “Loyalty” and most of it is pretty decent (e.g., “Woo,” “Sex With Me,” and “Nothing Is Promised”), but this feature is god-level. In less than 20 seconds, she flexes, she strolls through two slinking flows, and she’s out. It’s a very brief verse, but it really stitches the track together, not only because Kendrick runs with her flow for a stretch, but because it introduces an entirely alternative idea of loyalty. Kendrick’s verses are full of doubt and skepticism and insecurity, full of questions and suspicions, emotions projected outwards. Rihanna exudes pure conviction. “I’m established,” she says succinctly, her loyalty bolted to her own authenticity, totally unrelated to the doubts of anyone else.
RiRi doesn’t appear to have a writing credit for this verse, so perhaps this contrast is intentional, but authorship is conception and execution, so the way Rihanna delivers this verse is inevitably shaped by her experiences. And more importantly, what makes this feature so special is the way that the rapping encapsulates that sentiment of loyalty. Rihanna isn’t here to prove herself. She’s here because she wants to be. There’s no greater loyalty and there’s few greater part-time rappers.