Photo by Kevin Mazur, courtesy of Getty Images
Rihanna was the songwriters' third choice after Mary J. Blige.
In June 2007, Rihanna's "Umbrella" reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100. The song is known as 2007's song of summer, but debuted in March of that year as the lead single of Rihanna's third album, Good Girl Gone Bad. So many listeners downloaded the song, iTunes crashed.
Looking back, the song's success seems inevitable. Rihanna is tied with the Beatles for second most weeks at number one. She's the biggest superstar in her generation, but Rihanna was a middle-tier pop star in 2007. She sang island-infused dance pop like "Pon de Replay," which hit radio when Rihanna was only 17. Only one of her songs, the generic ballad "Unfaithful," had topped the Billboard Hot 100, and her first two albums, Music of the Sun and A Girl Like Me, failed to sell as many copies as the debut albums of Beyonce and Britney Spears. Rihanna's peers were Mya and Christina Milian. (Remember them?)
Good Girl Gone Bad changed all that. Third albums tend to define the rest of artists' careers. Born to Run saved Bruce Springsteen from cultural obscurity after two flops, and True Blue proved Madonna could match dance beats with political messages through the teenage pregnancy-themed second single "Papa Don't Preach." (Refrain: "I'm keeping my baby.") Similarly, "Umbrella" "doubled the magnitude of her career," according to a New Yorker profile by music critic Sasha Frere-Jones. At age 19, Rihanna blossomed from safe, generic teeny-bopper to confident, leather-clad hitmaker. And Rihanna pushed the change forward.
"This time around, I'm being a bit more rebellious, as many teens are at around my age!" Rihanna told Teen Vogue. "I'm showing people a different, darker side of me."
"Umbrella," was written by Terius "The-Dream" Nash and Christopher "Tricky" Stewart. Blender, one of the most influential music magazines of the aughts, reports that Stewart had previously written Mya's "Case of the Ex," while Nash had quit singing to write lyrics. In 2004, they teamed up for the hit Britney Spears/Madonna duet "Me Against the Music." Nash developed the hook, while Stewart worked on the beats—a process they have continued to use.
In January 2007, they met at their Triangle Studios to write a song. "At first I was thinking about God," Nash told Blender. "Like, God would say, 'I've got you under my umbrella. I'll protect you.'" According to the New Yorker profile, Stewart produced a rough beat and keyboard line, and then Nash penned a chorus.
Considering the success of "Me Against the Music," they approached Britney Spears to record the song for her comeback album, Blackout. She rejected the offer. "Her current state was a little bizarre, you know?" Stewart told MTV News. "It wasn't meant to be." (Ironically, Max Martin wrote Britney's first hit, "... Baby One More Time," for the girl group TLC.)
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
MTV News reports they reached out to Mary J. Blige and Island Def Jam CEO L.A. Reid. Coming off the triple platinum The Breakthrough, Blige was at the height of her career. She was at the Grammys, so she didn't get a chance to hear the song. Her team bid on the song, but they couldn't finalize the deal without her permission since she was already an established performer. Island Def Jam bought the song for Rihanna, believing it could boost her career. In 2007, Rihanna told Teen Vogue she had control over the songs on Good Girl Gone Bad unlike her previous albums, and she advocated for a "very edgy" vibe.
"It was very challenging, because I had more control over this one," she told the magazine. "I had a say in who I wanted to collaborate with and which songs I wanted to record, so there's more pressure there."
"Umbrella" sounded different from her previous songs. Nash and Stewart are partially to credit. Where "Pon de Replay" sounds like a standard pop dance song, "Umbrella" brings a hint of darkness. The drums pound. In performances, Rihanna wore tight black dresses that looked like they were made out of latex or leather instead of the generic skirts and pants that had populated her earlier performances. (Since it was 2007, she also would sometimes wear a fedora.) On The Today Show, Matt Lauer called it a "bad girl image." Rihanna shot back: "Good Girl Gone Bad is an expression of how I'm feeling right now."
For all the dark about being a "bad girl" and "edgy" sounds, the lyrics are safe. Rihanna sings, "When the sun shines, we shine together / Told you I'll be here forever." The mood stems from Rihanna's attitude as she hurls, "ella, ella, ella," and "eh, eh, eh." Unlike in her earlier songs, Rihanna flexed her personality, making the song's hook more memorable. If Britney or Mary J. sang the song, it likely would have succeeded, but it would have sounded different. Britney would have breath-sang "ella, ella, ella," and Mary J. would have belted it. "Umbrella" succeeded in 2007, because Rihanna was singing like Rihanna. Frere notes in the New Yorker that she "flattens" the lyrics. Her voice creates the song's sounds more than the beats. When you stop listening, "ella" is what echoes in your head. Rihanna's vocals became so distinct, Tyra Banks was able to parody them in an interview.
Rihanna deserves the credit for the song's iconic inflexions. Nash, Stewart, and Island Def Jams helped her, but if record labels could just pay to make an "Umbrella," there would have been way more since 2007.
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