By many standards, Rihanna’s having a pretty good summer. She’s touring Europe, where people are giving her free clothes, and she got to see the Eiffel Tower. But there’s something missing: The singer doesn’t have a song in contention for Song of the Summer status this year. “Stay” was a winter song and peaked accordingly, while “Pour It Up,” “Loveeeeeeee Song” and “Right Now” have floated around the outer reaches of the pop universe without ever really touching down.
With her breakneck album-a-year pace, Rihanna’s usually managed to find room on her slate for an annual summer jam, from “Pon Da Replay” in 2005 to “Where Have You Been” last year. The lack of such a song this year isn’t too disheartening—Rihanna’s sat summer out before—until you consider the fact that Rihanna could have had her hands on two of this summer’s biggest hits, and let each slip through her fingers.
The first came courtesy of the songwriting team of Stargate and Ester Dean, the people behind Rihanna hits like “Rude Boy,” “S&M” and “What’s My Name.” The trio produced a rolling, midtempo banger that followed the Rihanna recipe to the letter: bhangra beats, a West Indian lilt, plenty of wordless “na-na-na”s. But for reasons unknown, Rihanna did not record “Come & Get It”; the track was left to Selena Gomez and her astonishingly credible Rihanna impression. Did Rih pass up the song? No one will go on the record and say so, but fans have been connecting the dots.
Months later, another summer jam emerged that bore Rihanna’s imprint. Producer Mike Will Made It told MTV News that Miley Cyrus’ comeback single “We Can’t Stop” was originally one in a slate of songs he wrote for Rihanna’s Unapologetic, but the singer was too into his “Pour It Up” to give it much attention. The finished version of “We Can’t Stop” isn’t as nakedly Fentian as “Come & Get It”—Will and Cyrus reworked the track after Rihanna passed, which explains how well it fits into Cyrus’ new identity as a good-time party girl—but the song’s gleeful hedonism still bears some of the mark of the artist it was made for. (As does Cyrus’ ill-advised statement that she was looking for a “black sound” for the song.)
None of this is exactly surprising; songs today change hands like currency. But it’s tempting to imagine an alternate history where Rihanna did record both these songs. Would her star power have fueled them to even greater heights? Or would it come off as self-parody, each track’s utter Rihanna-ness working against it? Say what you will about Unapologetic, but the album did succeed in broadening the boundaries of what we consider a “Rihanna song.”
It used to be that Rihanna was the one making hits out of other stars’ leftovers. Has she lost her knack for spotting surefire smashes? Or were these lightweight summer songs just a bad fit for the dark, raw Unapologetic? Either way, we wouldn’t be too concerned. As with anything Rihanna, it’s only going to be a matter of months until the next reinvention anyway.