Rihanna is 27 years old. So is Adele. Taylor Swift is 26 years old and change. At some point in the past two years, roughly since Swift’s 1989 came out, one of them has been on top of the music world. It’s been either because of album sales, touring, or social media dominance, if not all three. During that time span, if you were to compile a list of the five most popular/biggest women (if not all artists, regardless of gender) in the music industry, it’d be: Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Adele and Taylor Swift. The actual order is obviously debatable, yet at various points since 1989‘s release Swift, Adele and/or Rihanna were able to occupy that top spot, wrestling it away from the unquestioned front-runner Beyonce.*
*If Beyonce’s status as the alpha was at all in question, her performance at Super Bowl 50 put those questions to bed.
With the present day covered, let’s fast-forward a little bit. Let’s look ahead 10 years and ask ourselves a couple of questions. In a decade, what will the careers of Adele, Rihanna and Taylor Swift look like? Who will still be going strong, and if more than one of them still are, whose career will be going the strongest? We’ve known each of these incredibly talented women for a while now and through some healthy debate, some unhealthy speculation, some assistance from a few of the folks here at Uproxx and lovely people on social media, we should be able to figure this out: In 10 years, who is on top: Adele, Rihanna or Taylor Swift?
The Case for Rihanna
RiRi recently released her eighth studio album, Anti, four long and lonely years since she last released an album. This was a pretty significant departure for her, seeing as how previously she was rocking a pace of an album a year — a feat she had managed to pull off with her first seven albums. It’s not as if Rihanna was lying dormant during that time, though. She released a handful of singles, lent her voice to the movie Home, and showed up on songs by Eminem and Drake. Anti is kind of a new look for Rihanna — a banger-free zone, devoid of the kind of songs that have kept Rihanna relevant and popular on Top 40 radio stations. The vibe of the album and the whiff of a change in direction by Rihanna is what prompted me to start thinking about her potential career in the coming years and in turn, the careers of Adele and Swift. I’m of the mindset that if she wanted to, Rihanna could still be going strong in 2026, largely because of the twist and turns she’s already navigated and could navigate in the future. So far, Rihanna has dabbled in pop music, R&B, hip-hop, ballads, and with “Bitch Better Have My Money,” a griminess she hadn’t really messed with up until that point. That’s not a bad collection of pitches in her arsenal. As far as the next 10 years go, Rihanna definitely has some options and, more importantly, she has a fallback — that straight up dancehall/reggae album that we know she has in her.
Another thing going for Rihanna is the company she keeps, whether it’s Kanye West, Travis Scott, Jay Z or Drake. That’s a lot potential collaborations there for the taking. And “Lean On,” the song of the summer, song of the fall, and a song that’s at least in the running for song of the winter, could have been a Rihanna song. Major Lazer offered; she passed. That just goes to show what kind of options RiRi has and it’s not as if those offers are going to suddenly dry up overnight. And with albums becoming less and less of a thing, the idea of living via singles is perfect for someone like Rihanna, an idea championed by Alex Galbraith, who pointed out that he thinks “Rihanna sticks around the longest because of her ability to crank out nonstop singles, regardless of albums.” Albums have been a stumbling block for her anyway, with Anti possibly being her strongest release to date. Existing primarily via singles could be the best move Rihanna has yet to make.
The Case Against Rihanna
My friend Elyse brought this up when we were discussing this subject, how much longer does Rihanna even want to do music? And it’s a valid question. A big takeaway from her four-year span between albums was that it was a sign that her focus was possibly shifting from music, that her attention was pointed in different directions. How can you not think that when she goes from releasing an album every year to taking four years in between albums? I follow Rihanna on Instagram, she spends a lot of time chilling on boats. What does that mean? I don’t know. No one knows. Who is even taking those pictures? It’s a total mystery, but also probably the best job in the world. But I do know that you know she has at least a nagging pang of the acting bug, and you have to wonder, at some point, does the desire to act supersede the desire to make music, even if it does mean acting in a movie like Battleship?
Furthermore, if Rihanna’s fallback move is a dancehall/reggae album, you have to ask yourself: How popular would that even be? All three of these women have their own version of a fallback move. Is Rihanna’s the least appealing to a mass audience? That might be the case. A Shakira-like trajectory could also be in play for Rihanna, where she finds herself gang-busters internationally, but not as relevant here in the states. Is that all that matters? No, of course not. But is it kind of all that matters? Yeah, kind of.
The Case for Adele
If the music industry was having a party for themselves at the end of 2015, then Adele kicked down the door, drank all the booze, ate all the pizza then dipped out without even offering to help clean up. Not only did she drop the mic, she sang amazingly into it before doing so. There’s a good chance that Adele has sold another million copies of 25 in the time it has taken me to write the few sentences I’ve written about her. And while you do the math on that possibility, she’s sold another 500,000 copies for good measure. If you were inclined to gamble on this proposition, the smart money bet would be Adele. Why wouldn’t it be? She’s an unstoppable force of nature who is popular within every single demographic imaginable. Or as Chris Morgan puts it, “Adele does not work within the zeitgeist, so her music is most likely to continue to be relevant. Her sound is already something of a throwback, and it works for her, and that will never stop being the case.” I agree. And I also believe that there’s no indication whatsoever that Adele wouldn’t be as popular in 10 years from now as she is today. If anything, she could very well be more popular.
So, let’s talk about how Adele would be so popular in 10 years, because I don’t think it’s all that debatable whether or not she will be. Adele could keep on doing what she’s doing and probably not miss a beat. Yeah, not much of a hot take there, but that’s my take and I’m sticking with it. Over three albums, Adele has established a formula, a pattern of success that definitely isn’t showing any cracks or dings. People are drawn to her voice, her lyrics and her personality. By keeping all three intact, she’s not going to lose any fans anytime soon. Plus, she plays the game well; when she’s gone, she’s gone. You don’t hear much from Adele in between albums, making her returns all that much more meaningful and bigger events. Of the three ladies in question, Adele is easily the one to put out the least amount of material in a decade-long span, something that could very well play in her favor. She leaves you wanting more and, when she does come back, you’re stoked; you’re happy to see her. So, in closing, if she stays the course, she stays popular.
The Case Against Adele
There’s this argument made by Martin Rickman, that “Adele isn’t going to stay around, I think because her voice will go on her. I have a weird feeling about that.” To which I respond, that would be a devastating blow to mankind as Adele’s voice is a gift from the almighty.
And there’s this from Galbraith: “I think Adele drops out first of all of them, because of the kids and the fact that she can ride the sales of whatever her next album is until she’s 50.” Dude, if she can’t already ride the sales of her albums until she’s 50, then I am incredibly worried about how she manages her money.
So, there’s conventional wisdom that says that yes, Adele is the safe bet here because her voice and sound are timeless and her appeal knows no limits. But I keep thinking about moves to be made here and with Adele, I’m not sure I see any she might be saving for a rainy day. Whereas Rihanna has shown a kitchen cabinet’s worth of diversity in her musical tastes and styles, Adele has been content to stay in her lane. She really hasn’t branched out all that much. Three albums into a career and that concerns me. That third album is where a musician is liable to spread their wings some, but that’s not necessarily the case with 25. It’s more of the same, which currently isn’t a bad thing, but in 10 years? I think it could be a little worse for the wear and a little stale. If that’s the case, how can you say Adele doesn’t have a ceiling and that she hasn’t hit that ceiling already? Look at how many new fans Taylor Swift got by switching it up with 1989. Adele isn’t likely to see the same kind of sea change until she herself changes.
So, maybe that’s a bigger question for Adele: Not if she’ll be on top in 10 years, but will she have changed her sound at all in that time. I think the answer to that dictates the answer to the first part of the question.
The Case for Taylor Swift
If you don’t think Swift already has it planned out what she’ll be doing in 10 years, you’re crazy. Swift most likely has her whole career mapped out until age 60, when she transitions to day-time television and becomes the next Oprah. But what will these next 10 years entail? Here we all thought we had Swift all figured out, and then she dropped 1989, throwing us all for a loop. You would now have to assume that her next album will be on par with the good-time pop of 1989, but can any of us really be sure about that? No, no we can’t. The odds are definitely in favor of her sticking with pop, but a smart gambler would hedge, banking on the fact that Swift is operating under the calculated guise of pure whimsy and token carefreeness and could go in any direction with her next album. Remember, Taylor Swift is smarter than you. It’s best just to admit it.
Once again, it’s about moves. Taylor Swift has moves to be made, even if it’s really just one major move — shifting back to country. She could feasibly go pop for one more record, perhaps a record not nearly as successful as 1989, and then retreat back to the friendly confines of country, or more specifically, as Michael Depland added, “not a full-on country turn, but the country-pop she started with, away from the straight ahead pop she’s been making.” A move back to country makes sense if Swift harbors dreams of doing the music thing for a while because, let’s be honest, minus dance moves, Swift isn’t going to be doing the pop music gig in 10 years. A return to acoustic guitar-strumming is her ticket. But, dude, it’s a heck of a ticket. If she wanted to, Swift could become the most successful country artist ever. That’s not a bad little fallback option if you were to ask me.
The Case Against Taylor Swift
Doesn’t it at least feel like Swift is just waiting for the right opportunity to move into acting? Look at her videos for the singles off 1989 — they were all practically mini movies! She’s appeared on Saturday Night Live and on New Girl, did some voice work in The Lorax and according to her IMDb page was in something called The Giver (we’re pretending it didn’t happen). I’m not saying she’d be a good actress, but I am at least feeling that an acting career is in play for her.
Beyond the temptation of acting, I can’t totally make a case against Swift. But I don’t think that cheapens the argument against her, if only because there is a calculated unpredictability with Swift. That makes her dangerous and hard to make a prediction on. I will say that I don’t think Swift will ever match the cultural and economic highs of her past year again. She hit that mark at the right time, with the right sound. It was the perfect move for her. She already had a solid fan base in place and was in a good spot to take a chance, regardless of what her label thought. Taylor Swift is one of those rare artists where people not only like their music, but love them. Her cult of personality is what really drives her popularity. The music is a bonus. And that’s what makes me think she deviates from music eventually, choosing instead to become more of a multimedia personality. Swift will drop an album here and there, just to keep that side of her portfolio fresh, but they won’t be her main bread and butter. That will be Swift herself, not just one part of her.
So, who will be on top in 10 years: Adele, Taylor Swift or Rihanna?
I’ve thought about this, I’ve sought out the opinions of others, thought about it some more. And while I think a decent case can be made for all three and that it’s very possible that in 10 years, the careers of all three could be entirely similar to their careers today, my final answer is Rihanna.
She has the most moves to make, at least musically. Anti was a cool and interesting departure for her and not just from her previous albums, but from songs she’s released as recently as a few months ago. Rihanna has an unpredictability to her that neither Swift or Adele do and that’s why I’m going with her. I also think we are only a couple of years away from albums being an afterthought and, in a singles-centric world, Rihanna is best-suited to survive and succeed. Adele and Swift are both album artists, much more so than Rihanna. If Adele is even still active in 10 years, she’ll most likely be releasing more of the same. Swift doesn’t have the twist and turns in her that Rihanna does. Her main move was going from country to pop. It’s not like she’s going to start rapping or unleash a collaboration with her current boyfriend Calvin Harris — a potential game-changer if she wanted to.
I could be wrong. I could be only half wrong. Give it 10 years and let’s see.