It had a hard beat but didn't skimp on the melody. The song was undeniably modern yet undeniably timeless.
This is about Beyonce's "Crazy In Love"
It's about Rihanna's "Umbrella"
Actually it's about both of those songs.
Two very different artists.
Two very similar, yet very different paths to superstardom.
Both Rihanna and Beyonce have long been touted as rivals, but it wasn't until Kanye West said that Rihanna was the best thing to happen to Beyonce that it became official. It was that thing you were thinking but didn't dare say out loud. And you know what... he might be right.
In terms of actual natural musical ability, they are not even on the same level. Beyonce is a world-class performer, with a powerhouse voice who has dominated charts and stages all over the world for the last decade. You can go to any hair salon, nail salon, church choir, or WIC office and round up about 40 girls who can outsing Rihanna on their worst day.
So because of this, I imagine that after years of hardwork, sacrifices, and proving herself as a dynamic performer and artist, it had to be a gigantic slap in the face for Beyonce to wake up one day and find that her biggest competition was a young tart with the vocal range of a dial tone and stage presence of a cardboard box. Beyonce probably thought "Umbrella" was a fluke. But once Rihanna-mania spread she may have chased Jay around the house with a skillet and cursed him for giving Rihanna the song. 6 millions records, and 6 hit singles later, Beyonce must have felt like this was all an awful nightmare. A nightmare where everybody is tone-deaf and blind, and Rihanna is the Queen of Pop.
Unfortunately, it's not a dream. Rihanna may or may not be the Queen of Pop, but if were going off popularity and worldwide success then Rihanna is the certainly the Queen of the Pop Charts. In the digital-download age of 2008 it doesn't take as much effort to have a big hit as it did 10 years ago. And we learned long ago that you don't need strong musical ability to sell records. Milli Vanilli scored 3 #1 hits on the Hot 100. There are a plethora of elements that go into making a hit record. A strong voice helps, but is not required. As a matter of fact the best vocalists in the world won't get the best productions, mainly because most producers don't want big voices drowining out their beats.
Beyonce is the exception to the rule because she can effortlessly switch her style up. Songs like "Speechless" and "Dangerously in Love" are what gets her praise from critics and legends, but songs like "Upgrade U" and "Get Me Bodied" show that she can ride a beat better than most rappers. That versatility is what helped her transition from Destiny's Child's frontwoman to worldwide megastar.
But being a megastar has its costs.
When you are an internationally known pop AND R&B star like Beyonce, there is an unfair expectation to please ALL of those fans. Millions of fans with millions of different tastes and life experiences, all of them wanting to be satisfied. There is always a huge chance that whatever music you put out will disappoint at least some of your fanbase. Beyonce seems to have found the solution. She has sawed herself in half. There's Beyonce, the person, the daughter, the friend, the wife, who loves hard and deep. Then there's Sasha Fierce, the hypersexual, hyperconfident glamazon who could give a fuck about what you think. Two different albums, two different styles, one artist. "If I Were a Boy" seems to be aimed at winning back those pop-inclined and/or overseas fans who left her "B'Day" party a little too early. "Single Ladies" seems to be saying "I have not left my R&B roots, I am not a sellout, please don't boo me at the BET awards."
Rihanna on the other hand didn't really need to hide behind an alter ego to be comfortable with her on-stage sexuality. Her videos and on-stage attire clearly say "My name is Rihanna, I'm not afraid. Look at my crotch."
If it seems as though Rihanna is more daring, bold, or experimental than Beyonce, it's because she didn't have as much to lose. When she released "Good Girl, Gone Bad" there wasn't a "Rihanna Sound" or "Rihanna Image" or anything she was known for. She didn't have a large fan base to appease or disappoint. She was in many ways a brand new artist at a time when people were searching for the Beyonce antidote. Beyonce had already slaughtered the careers of other R&B singers, so we all wondered who would be Beyonce's biggest competition.
Honestly we didn't think the antidote would be Rihanna even though "Umbrella", the video, was a very powerful statement. It was the type of groundbreaking imagery that MTV awards were originally designed for. It belongs in a music video time capsule, representing the best in female music video iconography. Alongside a number of Madonna and Janet videos, and just after "Crazy In Love". Timeless music videos which enhanced the song, re-introduced the artist, and changed the way in which music videos are made and viewed. On the other hand, Umbrella, the song, while also an undeniable classic, demands nothing vocally of Rihanna that could not be delivered by Beyonce, Brandy, Ciara, Ashanti, Christina Milian, or Cassie. And the same can be said of most, if not all of Rihanna's songs. So is it wrong to be a fan of imagery rather than artistry? No. Rihanna is not the first artist to get away with this. And won't be the last. Sometimes it's not at all about the talent. Sometimes it's simply about being the right person, at the right place, at the right time.
After Umbrella blew up MTV deemed Rihanna the "new" queen of R&B. The main problem with that is the fact that up until "Umbrella", Rihanna only had one significant hit on the R&B charts, and she didn't go #1 on the R&B charts until "Take A Bow" which was more or less "Irreplaceable (Part II)". Suddenly, from just one video, and one song, Rihanna becomes the new queen of R&B. It wasn't a fair assesmment. Not just because of Beyonce, but because the word "R&B" only comes into the equation because of the color of Rihanna's skin. "She's black, so she must be R&B. Right?" Rihanna was probably more dumbfounded by this than anyone. Appealing to R&B audiences was ever a top priority for her so she seemed genuinely shocked when won Best R&B Female artist (over Beyonce) at the American Music Awards last year for an album that was mostly dance-pop with a slight rock edge. When she performed at the BET Awards she seemed to be thinking "Ok...What am I doing here?"
She may have been confused, but she capitalized off this confusion. White fans may have felt hip for finally liking the R&B music Beyonce tried to sell them, even if it really wasn't R&B. Black fans who knew better may have felt eclectic and versatile for liking something other than Beyonce.
Which is not to say "Good Girl, Gone Bad" isn't good. Some people call Rihanna a singles artist, but the fact is those great singles had to have come off of a great album. With Good Girl, Gone Bad, Rihanna's hired help undoubtedly created a compelling record, some would say more compelling than any of Beyonce's records. They've definitely created an artist who can take on Beyonce on the charts. On stage however is a different story.
Beyonce does not perform onstage as much she does attack the stage. Her shows are futuristic funk/soul revues. Think Ike and Tina's old shows but with a larger budget and a Versace wardrobe. But if you take away the budget, the wardrobe, and the spectacle you still have a natural all-around entertainer who is eager to please and can sing and move at the same time.
All of Rihanna's performances are basically high fashion photoshoots with back-up dancers. Spontaniety and enthusiasm are not important. For most of her promo tour I thought she had the Umbrella on stage to prop her up because she was putting herself to sleep. Most times it looks as though being onstage is getting in the way of about 76 other things she'd rather be doing. My favorite performance of hers was her take on Madonna's "Vogue" at Fashion Rocks. But she didn't sing live, and for most of the performance she was either standing in one spot or being carried around by her dancers as if she couldn't be bothered to use her legs. I guess for a song named after such a high-energy movement I expected well... high energy and movement. Basically what you have is a dance artist, who has become hugely popular from dance music, but who can't really dance.
Does this make Beyonce a better entertainer?
Well, that depends on what your definition of a great performance is. There are quite a few people who think Britney Spears can outperform both Beyonce and Rihanna (we should devote a whole week to those people). Clearly these people have different opinions on what makes a good performance. Snatch a 13 year old girl out of a Hannah Montana concert, and send her to a Beyonce concert and see what happens. All of Sasha Fierce's soul shouting, gyrating, and gospel wailing may scare the shit out of them. But Rihanna's narcoleptic peformances have pyro, catchy songs, and funky outfits to distract you from her shortcomings and it may be the best thing in the world to a person with no real concept of the history of soul music, performance and instrumentation.
At the end of the day it's about personal taste. I can post reviews from Beyonce's concerts and compare them to Rihanna's and it really wouldn't matter. As Beyonce's husband (and Rihanna's mentor) said "Men Lie, Women Lie, Numbers Don't." And clearly live performances are not that important to a Rihanna fan, so I can post a million positive Beyonce reviews and it won't hold any weight. At the end of the day
numbers are what's always going to be true deciding factor, and Rihanna has strong numbers on her side.
Which is not to say that Beyonce doesn't care about numbers. It's just that Rihanna and Beyonce seem to have different philosophies on how to market themselves to the public.
Beyonce has let it known that she wants to be an icon, and she has certainly earned the title. Her success has come after years of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears under her belt, grinding it out with Destiny's Child for 15 years, losing Star Search, and working tirelessly by perfoming on any and every stage just to get a record deal.
Rihanna, on the other hand, appeared in one pageant/talent show pageant before getting a record deal.
So why does Rihanna at times seem more appealing?
To steal a quote from Family Guy, Beyonce "insists upon herself." She's GOING to be an icon whether you like or not. And you WILL like her and you WILL respect her and you WILL accept her greatness, and you WILL buy the deluxe DVD edition, and the 2 movies, and the world tour, and whatever products she's endorsing this week.
Rihanna, on the other hand could care less about being an icon. She just seems to breeze effortlessly from style to style like a little girl playing dress-up.
Beyonce is determined to go down in the history books.
Rihanna's attitude toward her career seems to be "Sure, why not?"
"So Rihanna, you wanna go to America and record an album?
"Sure, why not?"
"Hey I got this song called "Umbrella" Mary didn't want it and Britney didn't want it. You wanna record it?
"Sure, why not?"
You wanna cut all your hair off?
"Sure, why not?"
"You wanna wear this G-string on stage with 2 stickers on your nipples?
"Sure, why not?"
Another reason that Rhianna-mania has been able to spread is because of the level of information known about the two. We know everything about Beyonce, or we THINK we know everything about Beyonce. She has actually divulged very little about her personal life. We do know who her parents are, who her sister is, we know that Jay was the first person to sample her Creole Catfish, we even know her assistant's name (wassup Angie). This all amounts to over 50 million pages of gossip, rumors, and innuendo which can be overwhelming even for the strongest Beyonce stan.
We don't know a lot about Rihanna. All we know is that she's from Barbados and she likes Chris Brown's balls. There's not a lot of extra information distracting us from her music, so it's a little easier to enjoy it.
Everything Beyonce does and says is second-guessed, chopped, and screwed. And she IS heavily resented because she has made it very difficult for other R&B artists to sustain their careers. So some people may like Rihanna just because after all the artists who lost their battles with Beyonceitis, Rihanna was the first person to shake Beyonce up. Most of the negative attention Beyonce gets is not fair but I'm assuming that she has already learned that life isn't fair. If life were fair then it would be just about the talent and Rihanna would be Beyonce's stylist, not her musical competition. But sometimes life just isn't fair, and if it inspires Beyonce to be a better artist and entertainer then I say we should be grateful.
So, in many ways Rihanna has probably helped Beyonce. Was she the best thing to ever happen to Beyonce? Maybe. Do Beyonce stans hate Rihanna? No. Quite a number of us like her and the music she is apart of. Beyonce stans don't hate Rihanna, we just hate the fact that we live in a world that doesn't know the difference between a Beyonce and a Rihanna.