When you think about it, Madonna and Rihanna have a lot in common: They both are known only by one name, which is seven letters long and ends in “anna.” OK, they might have some non-name-related things in common as well—they’re both genre-hopping, style-switching, middle-finger-flipping pop provocateurs, and Rihanna has even been quoted as saying that she wants to become the “black Madonna.”
Well, Ri’s now matched her in one respect, at least. With “Diamonds” reaching pole position on the Hot 100 this week, Rihanna now has an even dozen chart toppers—ten as a lead artist, two as a guest—matching Madonna’s career total to date. Impressively, while Madonna took 16 years between her first and twelfth No. 1, Rihanna managed to tally 12 in just a six-year span. Both artists now trail only The Beatles (20), Mariah Carey (16) and Michael Jackson (13) in number of chart-toppers in Hot 100 history.
Now there’s little doubt that among career achievement, Madonna still far outpaces Rihanna, mostly as a virtue of her extra 20 years or so in the game. But now that we have an equal, fair measure by which to compare them, let’s ask: Which of the two has the better dozen of No. 1s? Let’s compare them, one by one in chronological order:
1. “LIKE A VIRGIN” (1984) VS. “S.O.S.” (2007)
Two classics here, but the sheer cultural impact of “Like a Virgin,” one of the most iconic songs of the 1980′s, has to give it the easy edge over “S.O.S.,” a very excellent song that nobody really thinks of first when they think of Rihanna anymore. Plus, “Virgin” is probably better anyway, with an inspired post-disco groove and one of Madonna’s slinkiest, most alluring vocals—she slays Rihanna here with one high-pitched “HEY!”
2. “CRAZY FOR YOU” (1985) VS. “UMBRELLA” (2006)
Another no-brainer—”Crazy For You” is a fine ballad and likely karaoke favorite among Vision Quest cultists, but not even Madonna’s best chart-topping soundtrack ballad of the decade. Meanwhile, we just ranked “Umbrella” as best among all Rihanna songs ever, so if it couldn’t even beat a song that might not rank in Madonna’s top 30, that wouldn’t say a whole lot for RiRi.
3. “LIVE TO TELL” (1986) VS. “TAKE A BOW” (2008)
A much less lightweight Madonna soundtrack ballad here—we’ve never seen At Close Range, but we doubt it could add much to the emotional slow-burn of “Live to Tell,” one of Madonna’s most affecting and most underrated singles. “Take a Bow” is great, but it’s forever dwarfed by Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” and can’t really compete with one of Madonna’s greatest moments.
4. “PAPA DON’T PREACH” (1986) VS. “DISTURBIA” (2008)”
“Papa” is about as enjoyable as a song about telling your dad about your unintended underage pregnancy can be, and its certainly taken on an important place in ’80s pop culture, but it was never really our Madonna jam of choice. “Disturbia” is preferable—another song on the darker side, but one that has a little more pep in its step and a chorus that’s easier to sing along to without feeling weird than “BUT I’VE MADE UP MY MIIII-IIIND / IIIIIII’M KEEPING MY BABY.”
5. “OPEN YOUR HEART” (1986) VS. “LIVE YOUR LIFE” (2008)
A little bit of a tougher one here, as we’re a fan of both songs, but probably wouldn’t count either among their respective artists’ top tier. Madonna probably gets the edge here as virtue of being the lead artist on hers, while Rihanna is backing up T.I. at his preachiest, dragging down the momentum of Ri’s awesome hook.
6. “WHO’S THAT GIRL?” (1987) VS. “RUDE BOY” (2010)
“Who’s That Girl?” is a cute enough theme song to one of Madonna’s biggest film disasters, but it’s easily the most innocuous of Madonna’s chart-toppers, the one you’d think of last (if at all) when attempting to name all 12 of them. “Rude Boy” isn’t Rihanna’s best, but it’s far more memorable a single, for that undeniable synth hook if nothing else. Sorry to keep going back and forth between winners here, but the pattern must continue.
7. “LIKE A PRAYER” (1989) VS. “LOVE THE WAY YOU LIE” (2010)
So not even a contest that Madonna should probably get two points for this one. “Like a Prayer” is probably one of the ten most beloved songs in the entire history of pop music, as classic a smash hit as there ever was. “Love the Way You Lie” is, uh, not.
8. “VOGUE” (1990) vs. “WHAT’S MY NAME?” (2010)
Our first true battle of heavyweights, as both singles rank among their respective artists’ all-time best. Again, we have to side with history a little here—we don’t know if “What’s My Name” will still elicit the kind of rapturous reaction (from us or from the public at large) 20 years from now, but we know that pretty much everyone (including us) still gets pumped when “Vogue” comes on. Finally, we have our first back-to-back winner.
9. “JUSTIFY MY LOVE” (1991) VS. “ONLY GIRL (IN THE WORLD)” (2010)
Another tough one—neither is quite on the same tier for their respective artists as “Vogue” or “What’s My Name?,” but both are certainly close to the top overall. Rather than go with history here, we have to go with importance within the artist’s catalog—and whereas Rihanna has a handful of club anthems that hit similar notes as “Only Girl,” there’s only one song as sensual and intriguing as “Justify” in Madonna’s discography (or anybody else’s, for that matter).
10. “THIS USED TO BE MY PLAYGROUND” (1992) VS. “S&M” (2011)
Not a top 40 song from either artist, but again, going by the significance-within-catalogue standard here, the advantage clearly goes to the whip-cracking, taboo-busting stomp of “S&M” rather than the sepia-toned moroseness of “Playground.” Maybe if there was more lyrics about loving the smell of sex in the latter, it’d be a fairer fight.
11. “TAKE A BOW” (1995) VS. “WE FOUND LOVE” (2011)
In a perfect world, we’d have had the respective “Take a Bow”s for both artists going up against one another (and for the record, I’m not sure which would have won—tight race), but alas, the timelines would not align. Instead, Madonna’s “Bow” has the misfortune of going against an all-timer like Rihanna’s ten-week-chart-topping “We Found Love,” and while the mid-’90s Madonna ballad has actually aged a lot better than you might’ve expected, it doesn’t really stand a chance here.
12. “MUSIC” (2000) VS. “DIAMONDS” (2012)
“Diamonds” is growing on us every day, slowly but surely, but “Music” didn’t really need to grow on us—its ass-kicking electro-pop awesomeness was pretty evident from day one. Factoring in the two songs’ respective music videos isn’t helping Rihanna’s case here much either.
OVERALL WINNER: Madonna, 7-5
Yup, looks like the Material Girl reigns supreme in this one. No shame in getting beaten by the best, though, Rihanna, and while Madge’s chart-topping days look to already be behind her, you might only just be getting started—hell, if you had another 12 to your credit at this point a half-decade from now, can’t say we’d be hugely shocked by it. Keep your head up.