Found On: Unapologetic
The most purely exciting song on Rihanna’s new one, “Jump” is mostly successful for two reasons—her steal of the chorus to Ginuwine’s Magic Mike-approved mid-’90s classic “Pony,” and the ensuing dubstep/house breakdown that the chorus triggers. There’s not terribly much of a song surrounding those two factors—Ri’s lyrics concern trying to convince a straying or maybe just unconvinced lover of her prowess, Kanye shows up for what might be the least impressive eight bars of his rapping career—but there doesn’t need to be one, because the combination of chorus and break is so fucking invigorating that all the rest of the song needs to do is kill time until it can wind up for the chorus again. It’s a much-needed boost of energy to NBA’s jump ball music canon—Kriss Kross and House of Pain were getting mad tired.
Best Moment: The final break, where chorus and break join forces for about 20 seconds of the most obligatory head-banging music of the year.
19. “ALL OF THE LIGHTS”
Found On: Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
One of the most compelling songs on Kanye’s flawed 2010 masterwork, in which he summons all the world’s wattage to shine light on his imaginary domestic troubles (“I slapped my girl, she called the feds,” “Restraining order, can’t see my daughter”) over a hyperactive drum shuffle and some absolutely epic horns. Rihanna provides some nice vocal contrast to Yeezy’s mania on the song’s hook, calmly singing “Turn up the lights in here baby, extra bright I want y’all to see this,” but despite her presence (and contributions from about a dozen other big-name guests over the course of the song, including Fergie and even Elton John) this is clearly Kanye’s show—which is why the song, fascinating and adrenalizing though it is, misses the top ten on this list.
Best Moment: Gotta go with the opening “ALL OF THE LIGHTS!” yelp, followed by the introduction of those booming horns. That’s how you take a song from 0 to 10 in about five seconds.
18. “COCKINESS (LOVE IT) (REMIX FEAT. A$AP ROCKY)”
Found On: Non-Album Single
One of the craziest beats Rihanna or anyone else has worked with this decade, an irrepressible Bangladesh production built around a truly ingenious sample of Billy Stewart’s ‘60s rendition of the old musical standard “Summertime.” That twisted, chattering sample provides the song’s backbone, and Rihanna rides it like a champ, declaring “I want you to be my sex suh-lave,” and “She may be the queen of hearts, but I’ma be the queen of your body parts.” The primary vocal hook might be Rihanna’s worst double-entendre yet—”Suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion”—but it’s so cheesy, and the beat is so over-the-top as is, that it’s more lovable than grating anyway. The A$AP Rocky verse on the remix doesn’t add a ton, but his voice is a good fit for it, and it does give us an extra half-minute with that absolutely nutso beat, for which we are grateful.
Best Moment: Easily when the beat temporarily drops out for Ri to proclaim “NO ONE CAN DO YOU THE WAY THAT I DOOO / BOY I WAH-AH-AHHHHNT…..” as her sentence is answered by Stewart’s yawped “YOUUUUUU!!!!!!” Totally insane, and totally awesome.
17. “RUSSIAN ROULETTE”
Found On: Rated R
Probably the most intense song Rihanna ever recorded, and one of the strangest lead singles released by a major pop artist of recent years. Yes, this creepy, melodramatic ballad—which features Rihanna pleading for her lover to “just pull the trigger” amidst gun-barrel-spinning sounds throughout, and ends with a gunshot, presumably aimed at Rihanna’s own head—was the first song released from Rated R, reflecting what an exceedingly vulnerable the singer was at in this point of her career—just a half-year after the incident of Grammy Night 2009, natch. You can almost feel her trembling as she sings “You can see my heart beating / You can see it through my chest,” an absolutely unnerving hook whose tension is amplified by the menacingly pulsating beat and relentless gun sounds.
The song underperformed commercially compared to her string of Good Girl Gone Bad smashes, but it established Rihanna as an artist unafraid of taking some very real risks with her music, and it stands today as one of her most impressive musical achievements.
Best Moment: Probably the final gunshot, a disturbingly welcome release after the song’s borderline-unbearable tension throughout.
Found On: Unapologetic
One of Rihanna’s best ballads, an intimate, personal-sounding romantic plea that sounds like it could have been a lost cut from Adele’s 21. Without much musical accompaniment—only a Radiohead-like piano hook provides musical accompaniment for the majority of the song—the songwriting and Rihanna’s vocal performance really shine through, an absolutely gorgeous effort that show how far Rihanna has come as a vocalist and artist from her early days—no way would she have been able to do what she did a few weeks ago on SNL with this song five years ago. The largely unknown and mysterious Mikky Ekko shows up as Ri’s duet partner, but though he provides some nice harmonies on the bridge, the song is better as a one-woman show, and Rihanna’s specifically.
Best Moment: Maybe the final couple extended “Stay”s, followed by Rihanna’s soft “ooooh” falsetto. Emotional stuff.
15. “DON’T STOP THE MUSIC”
Found On: Good Girl Gone Bad
Rihanna’s first single to demonstrate she could be just as effective on club-based jams as hip-hop-based ones, a kinetic anthem of lust and dancefloor energy—keyed, of course, by another Michael Jackson lift, this time the perennially sampled “Mama-say, mama-sa, ma-ma-ko-ssa” hook from “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (via Manu Dibango, who sued Rihanna for her interpolation of his original lyric.) The connection between the dancefloor and the bedroom would be one visited by Rihanna throughout her career, but probably never better than here, where the acts of dancing and fucking basically become one under seductively drawled lyrics like “Do you know what you started? / I just came here to party / But now we’re rockin’ on the dancefloor, acting naughty.” With that relentless MJ sample, the Stargate beat keeps things from ever getting monotonous, and begins Ri’s career path to being perhaps the greatest house diva of her era.
Best Moment: When the heavily filtered “Mama-say” hook first pops up in the pre-chorus, getting gradually cleaner and cleaner until it finally explodes undisguised in the first chorus.
14. “PON DE REPLAY”
Found On: Music of the Sun
The song that started it all for Rihanna, and a dancehall classic of the ’00s. Rihanna doesn’t do a ton of showy vocalizing on this one, instead letting the song’s relentless groove take center stage—smart, considering how insanely catchy the beat to this one was. Adorned by Rihanna’s incessant pleas for the DJ to turn the music up—which seemingly go for the entire song, without Ri so much as taking a break to breathe—the shuffling “Pon de Replay” beat became one of the most unavoidable sounds on radio during the summer of 2005, hypnotizing from the very first listen. It didn’t do much to showcase what made Rihanna unique as a performer and a pop star, but there would be time enough for that later.
Best Moment: The way Rihanna spits out the word “sneak-ahs” in the “Let the bass from the speakers run through ya sneakers” line. The first of many super-cute, super-awesome vocal tics Rihanna would make unforgettable over the course of her career.
13. “LIVIN’ A LIE”
Found On: The-Dream’s Love/Hate
The most under-appreciated duet of Rihanna’s career, and the only time she and longtime collaborator The-Dream shared a microphone. A forbidden-love anthem, in which Ri and Dream bemoan that they’re unable to make their romance known to the world (for unspecified reasons, though it’s probably not fidelity-related, as made clear by Dream’s super-memorable “This feels worser than cheating” lamentation), the 2007 song feels oddly prophetic for another real-life high-profile romance of Rihanna’s that the world could never understand. Regardless, the vocal urgency of the song is really put across by the two performers, getting increasingly desperate as they shriek “I wanna be near you!” “I wanna be near you too!,” but always coming back to the gorgeously harmonized central issue: “We out here livin’ a lie.” Stunning stuff.
Best Moment: Ri and Dream’s “It feels like I ain’t breathing” / “This feels worser than cheating” lyrical trade-off on the first verse, probably, but it’s a song full of highlights.
Found On: Rated R
When talking of hit songs of the last five years that nobody but Rihanna could have done successfully, “Hard” has gotta be at the top of the list. Whether declaring that her “runway never looked so clear,” bragging about her “fanmail from 27 million” or challenging “Where them girls talking trash / Where they at, where they at, where they at?,” all over The-Dream and Tricky Stewart’s booming, militaristic beat, the song is 100% Rihanna—aside from the well-chosen Young Jeezy guest verse, anyway—and 100% badass. And of course, the song’s primary chest-puff—of Rihanna proclaiming over and over again “I-I-I’m so hard / Yeah-yeah-yeah, so hard,” while in essence totally meaningless, does kinda define Rihanna Mach II, cementing her evolution from underage songstress to unfuckwithable pop icon.
Best Moment: We can’t help but be partial to the “Where them bloggers at? Where them blogger at?” callout in the bridge, for obvious reasons.
11. “MAN DOWN”
Found On: Loud
Rihanna had done so much stylistic evolving in the four years since second album A Girl Like Me that it was almost shocking to hear Rihanna return to the reggae world that provided the core of her sound in her early days on fifth album Loud. Luckily, she did so with one of the best songs of her career, the murder ballad “Man Down,” which involves Rihanna gunning a man down “in Grand Central Station, in front of a big old crowd,” for largely unspecified reasons (though in the song’s controversial music video, the murder is in response to a sexual assault). The song’s beat is a lot more full-bodied than the relatively thin grooves Ri used in the past, and the song’s content is surprisingly emotional for such an obvious fiction, Rihanna sounding legitimately pained as she testifies “I didn’t mean to hurt him / Coulda been somebody’s son!” And of course, the song’s hook—Ri’s tongue-rolled “Rum-pum-pa-pum…Man Down!“—was an instant classic.
Best Moment: Probably any instance of the song’s signature hook, though the subtle introduction of the police sirens at the song’s beginning is also a nice touch—although it makes the song frightening music for car rides.
For songs #10-1, click NEXT.