Rihanna’s 30 Most Important Musical Moments
In honor of the Bad Gal’s 30th birthday, we look back at her greatest career milestones.
Who would have predicted that, after 13 years, seven platinum albums, and 14 number one singles, the apple-cheeked 17 year old we saw singing and dancing on the beach in the saccharine music video for “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want” would evolve into the robust vocalist, alluring performer, style icon, sex symbol, business mogul, humanitarian, and all-around multitudinous 30 year-old woman we identify as Rihanna today?
Everything Rihanna does, she does with the fullest flourish of her identity. What she demonstrates is more than just an understanding of self, but rather an unabashed embrace, and she steadily refuses to hide this relationship with herself, from or for anyone. She's a role model who resonates with generations of people, but especially young women and femmes, for her embodiment of hypermodern femininity, and the way she exhibits empathy for women and people from all walks of life. Her natural charm is simultaneously arresting yet inviting. She’s at once a fantasy of incomprehensible glamour, and yet someone who feels like a friend to those who admire her. We love her for being utterly averse to insincerity, and for being a living demonstration of agency that everyone can aspire to.
Rihanna has secured a legacy by age 30 that anyone would be lucky to attain over the course of a lifetime. Besides her innovations in fashion and beauty, her impressive business acumen, her philanthropic contributions to help children and others in need, and the preternatural charisma she radiates that makes her a joy to observe in anything she does, Rihanna’s musical achievements are her first and foremost coronation. Here, we recount 30 of the most defining moments of her musical career, and we eagerly look forward to all she still has yet to share. Happy Birthday RiRi!
- Signs To Def Jam In 2004 After Auditioning For JAY-Z
Having been passed along Rihanna’s early demos recorded in her native Barbados, former CEO and President of Def Jam Records JAY-Z invited a young Robyn Rihanna Fenty to audition for him and L.A. Reid. After performing a cover of Whitney Houston’s “For The Love Of You” as well as an early version of what would become her breakout single “Pon De Replay,” Rihanna received an offer she literally couldn’t refuse. JAY-Z made her promise to cancel all meetings with other labels and accept a six album record deal with Def Jam on the spot.
- Drops Debut Album Music Of The Sun In 2005
A 17 year old Rihanna released her Def Jam debut the summer of 2005. Music Of The Sun is a collection of youthful, upbeat dance songs of Caribbean influence that offered American audiences an exciting introduction to a talented young woman making her entry into the industry and bringing along sounds that were unheard on the charts at the time. Singles like “Pon De Replay” and “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want” evoke sunny memories of Rihanna’s artistic origins.
- Nabs Her First No. 1 Single “SOS”
Rihanna earned her first No. 1 hit with uptempo dance single “S.O.S.,” from her sophomore album A Girl Like Me (2006), which saw huge international success and has been certified platinum.
- Releases Good Girl Gone Bad In 2007
As the title suggests, Rihanna’s third studio album marked a crucial turning point for her sound and image. Assuming more control over her creative direction, she elected to distance herself from her Caribbean influences, donned a sexier, edgy new image, and teamed up with heavyweight producers like Timbaland, The-Dream, and Tricky Stewart to churn out a collection of infectious, polished pop hits. Good Girl Gone Bad has gone 5x platinum, and cemented Rihanna’s presence in popular music.
- “Umbrella” Dominates The Airwaves In 2007
Rihanna’s destiny to become a pop superstar was fulfilled in 2007 when “Umbrella” took over the charts. Once it climbed to the No. 1 spot, it stayed there for seven consecutive weeks, making it the No. 2 best-performing song of the year only behind Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable.” The single’s success confirmed Rihanna’s breakthrough as an international sensation, and having sold over eight million copies worldwide, “Umbrella” remains one of the most well-known songs in her catalog.
- Earns Her First Grammy Win
At the 2008 Grammys, a 19-year-old Rihanna took the stage hand-in-hand with her mentor JAY-Z to accept the award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for “Umbrella”—her first Grammy win of many to come. She thanked him, as well as L.A. Reid, Tricky Stewart, The-Dream, her family, and her native island of Barbados for making the moment possible.
- Teams Up With T.I. On “Live Your Life”
This 2008 T.I. song featuring Rihanna broke a number of Billboard chart records, including the highest jump to No. 1 from its debut position at No. 80 on the Hot 100. The success of “Live Your Life” also made Rihanna the first female artist of the 21st century to accumulate five No. 1 singles.
- Shifts The Tone With Rated R
Rih’s 2009 album Rated R marked another important shift in her sound and aesthetic. Things took a darker, more brooding turn, particularly on singles like “Russian Roulette” and “ROCKSTAR 101.” Rated R debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, and later went platinum.
- Calls Back To Her Roots With “Rude Boy”
In her biggest hit since “Umbrella,” Rihanna made a special callback to her dancehall and reggae roots with “Rude Boy,” a delightful, sexually-taunting earworm that only Rihanna could execute to such perfection. The lyrics exemplify the unique sexual spirit and swagger we’ve come to associate with Rihanna’s music, and the single was accompanied by a memorable video directed by Melina Matsoukas.
- Reunites With JAY-Z To “Run This Town”
JAY-Z enlisted his protege to carry the hook on triumphant Blueprint 3 single “Run This Town” in 2009, which also featured Kanye West. The song won a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration in 2010.
- Releases Fifth Studio Album Loud
Rihanna’s 2010 album Loud saw her sound return to a brighter, more saturated place after the darkness of Rated R. Singles like “Only Girl (In The World)” and “S&M” were bold, brash, and playful. Loud delivered some of Rihanna’s biggest collaborations yet, with artists who would continue to be pertinent to her career for years to come like Drake, Eminem, and Nicki Minaj. The album’s first week sales were the highest of Rihanna’s career at the time, and three of its seven singles hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, which made Rihanna the youngest artist to ever accumulate 10 No. 1 singles so rapidly.
- Collaborates For The First Time With Eminem
Rihanna’s working relationship with Eminem began in 2010 with Parts I & II of “Love The Way You Lie,” featured respectively on his album Recovery and her album Loud. Later would come “Numb” on Rihanna’s Unapologetic in 2012, followed by “The Monster” in 2013, which inspired a co-headlining tour of the same name the following year. Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2015 about working with Em, Rihanna said he is “one of the most talented poets of our time.”
- Finds A Partner In Crime In Drake
A prolific collaborative relationship between Rihanna and Drake would begin in 2010 with playful Loud single “What’s My Name?” which received a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. The following year, Rihanna would assist Drake on the eponymous single from his sophomore album Take Care, marking another important milestone in what has grown into a fruitful working relationship that continues to this today. In 2016, each contributed to the other’s albums once more in the form of “Too Good” from Views, and ANTI smash “Work.
- Helps Kanye West Create A Classic With “All Of The Lights”
In 2010, Rihanna contributed the hook to one of Kanye West’s most acclaimed singles, from his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Produced by West himself, “All Of The Lights” also features Kid Cudi, Fergie, John Legend, Elton John, Alicia Keys, and more, but Rihanna is the only credited feature. The song won a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration in 2012, and is certified 3x platinum.
- Ups The Stakes With Talk That Talk
Rihanna made a crucial foray into electronic/dance music with her 2011 album, Talk That Talk. It paid off handsomely, yielding massive singles like “Where Have You Been,” and the Calvin Harris-assisted “We Found Love.” The latter became the longest-running No. 1 single of the year, and is one of the best selling pop singles of all time, having sold more than 10.5 million copies worldwide. The music video for “We Found Love,” directed by Melina Matsoukas, received a Grammy award for Best Short Form Music Video.
- Reveals Her Truest Form On Unapologetic
Rihanna’s seventh studio album presented the most vivid portrait yet of who she is, and may still be the most definitive in terms of what we identify as her sound.. The album features fan favorites such as “Pour It Up,” “Loveeeeeee Song,” and “Jump,” as well as colossal singles “Diamonds” and “Stay.” Unapologetic earned Rihanna her best first week sales ever, a double platinum certification, and a Grammy award for Best Urban Contemporary Album in 2014.
- “Diamonds” Is An Enduring International Hit
One of the best-selling singles of all time—not just for Rihanna, but for any artist —“Diamonds” has gone 6x platinum since its release in 2012. The power with which it evokes both strength and vulnerability makes it easy to understand why it’s grown to be one of Rihanna’s most well-loved hits. She has delivered memorable performances of it at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, Saturday Night Live, The X Factor UK, and the American Music Awards.
- Stripped-Down Single “Stay” Lingers On The Charts
Rihanna’s stark, piano-driven ballad featuring Mikky Ekko sold over 10 million copies worldwide, peaked at No. 3 on Billboard Hot 100—making it Rihanna’s 24th Top 10 single in her career, surpassing the tally of Whitney Houston—and nabbed a nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 2013 Grammy Awards, at which she performed it.
- Turns On The Trap With “Pour It Up”
Robyn teamed up with Atlanta trap producer Mike WiLL Made-It to craft a strip club anthem for the ages. Along with it came an equally iconic music video, in which Rihanna and a number of dancers show off their skills on the pole, unencumbered by male spectators. Apart from being a wholly satisfying slapper, “Pour It Up” also embodies sexual agency and female empowerment in an exciting and believable way that we are frankly not afforded enough in popular music.
- Traverses The World In Seven Days On The 777 Tour
To mark the release of her seventh album, Unapologetic, Rihanna embarked on a promotional tour to perform seven concerts in seven different countries in as many days, with a jet full of journalists and fans in tow. The experience was recorded and released as a documentary.
- Shuts Down The Runway At The 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show
Who better to lend sensuality and swagger to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show than Ms. Fenty? Rihanna gave the supermodels a run for their money while giving the first ever broadcast performances of “Diamonds” and “Phresh Out The Runway.”
- Opens The 2012 MTV Video Music Awards
Rihanna kicked off the 2012 VMAs with an instant classic performance in which she debuted the remix to Talk That Talk highlight “Cockiness” featuring A$AP Rocky, followed by an energizing performance of “We Found Love,” the video for which would take home the award for Video Of The Year later that night.
- Receives An Unprecedented Honor At The American Music Awards
In November 2013, Rihanna performed an orchestra-assisted rendition of “Diamonds” at the American Music Awards, and later accepted the first ever Icon Award, an accolade created to “honor an artist whose body of work has made a profound influence over pop music on a global level.” The award was presented by her mother, Monica Braithwaite, after a moving montage of career highlights, praise from cultural gatekeepers, and a sound bite from her mentor JAY-Z.
- Joins Forces With Two Fellow Icons For “FourFiveSeconds
After nearly three years without releasing new music, Rihanna motioned to make up for her absence with the sudden unveiling of “FourFiveSeconds,” in collaboration with Kanye West and Sir Paul McCartney in January 2015. Together, this mighty trio of legends spawned a gospel-flavored acoustic pop song buoyant with fury—a cathartic anthem for those at the end of their rope. A surprise in its very existence, furthered by its unexpectedly minimal sonics, “FourFiveSeconds” stands apart in the catalogs of all three artists as a truly unique moment, thrilling in its singularity and delightful in its rage.
- Goes For Blood With “Bitch Better Have My Money”
Not long after “FourFiveSeconds,” Rihanna circumvented expectations once more by following up the bouncy acoustic single with a snarling trap banger, namely “Bitch Better Have My Money.” The gleefully sinister single was co-produced by Kanye West and Travis Scott designed to whet the public’s appetite for Rihanna’s eighth studio album, and it was accompanied by a raucous, blood-soaked music video which she co-directed herself. Although the single ultimately wasn’t a part of the album to come, "BBHM" is a spectacular standalone moment in Rihanna’s career history that will be remembered for being just as fun as it is menacing.
- “Work” Pays Off
Although Rih’s understated dancehall track featuring her old so-and-so Drake was initially met with a lukewarm reception from critics, it ultimately blossomed into the most enduring song of the year. “Work” held the No. 1 spot for 9 consecutive weeks, shattered multiple chart records, and went 5x platinum, making it the biggest hit of her career. It also earned her two Grammy nominations, including one for Record Of The Year.
- Sets A New Bar For Herself On ANTI
Rihanna’s eighth studio album took a notoriously long time to surface, but what an arrival it was. Her first album since leaving Def Jam to sign with JAY-Z’s Roc Nation imprint and also the first release under her own record label Westbury Road Entertainment, ANTI felt in many ways like the arrival of a brand new Rihanna. Her Piscean energy weaves together dreamy meditations of infatuation, unbridled indulgence of emotion, and powerful assertions of self—all with a minimalistic overall sound that resists categorization. ANTI is Rihanna’s most understated album yet, and at the same time it is her most artistic and cohesive body of work, feeling like a more authentic representation of who she is than ever. The album received some of the highest critical acclaim of Rihanna’s career, and rightfully so.
- Receives The 2016 MTV VMA Video Vanguard Award
As part of her receiving the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award in honor of her audiovisual artistry—presented to her with great ceremony by none other than Drake—Rihanna put on a multi-part performance spanning the many singles of her career and many facets of her sound. By curating her song selections into four categories she demonstrated perfectly the four identifying pillars of her musical identity: dancehall, trap, uptempo pop, and soulful ballads.
- Assists Another Smash With “Wild Thoughts”
Not content to rest after a tremendous 2016, Rihanna ensured her presence would remain on the charts in 2017 by jumping on DJ Khaled’s infectious summer jam “Wild Thoughts” featuring Bryson Tiller. The song debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, climbed to #1 on the Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart, and made Rihanna the fourth woman ever to appear in at least 60 Hot 100 entries (outnumbered only by Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, and Aretha Franklin.)
- Reigns As Spotify’s Most-Streamed Female Artist
For the third year running, Rihanna was revealed to be Spotify’s most-streamed woman artist of 2017, outweighing the likes of Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, and Ariana Grande. To express her gratitude, Riri took to Instagram to share the news with the following caption: “Shout out to the big homie GOD! big ups to all the fans and streamers for the support when sis ain't even had an album out.”
You can stream Rihanna's entire discography here.