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Revisiting Rihanna's ballads: Before "Love on the Brain," there were these slowed songs

Danielle Cheesman

 // Aug 23, 2016

Yesterday, Rihanna took to Instagram to announce that ANTi cut and fan-favorite "Love on the Brain" would be her "#nextsingle." Anyone that's heard the track can recognize it as a noted shift in genre for the singer, but that's less because of its balladry and more because of its retro soul sounds; sprinkled in between her club bangers, RiRi's been releasing slow-burners and -churners for, like, 10 years. Currently, #LOTB sits at No. 83 on Billboard's Hot 100, but that's sans its proper promo roll-out. So, as we wait for The Machine to put all the money behind it, let's review Rihanna's highest-charting ballads. Based on her history, will #LOTB sink or soar?

Song: "Unfaithful" | Year: 2006 | Chart Position: 6

Rihanna - Unfaithful
RihannaVEVO

After making her debut with the dancehall-pop of "Pon De Replay" (which shot to No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100) and then achieving even greater success with the '80s synth-sampling chart-topper "S.O.S.," it was clear that the release of 2006's "Unfaithful" was meant to make a deliberate mark in her artist development. Her people needed us to know that she could do more than just soundtrack a dance battle. But the Ne-Yo-co-penned "Unfaithful" felt like a bit of an overshot. The plain piano, stark strings, and exaggerated lyrics—let's not forget that in the aftermath of cheating on her man, a guilt-ridden RiRi relates herself to a full-blown murderer—made the track feel melodramatic beyond belief.


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Song: "Take a Bow" | Year: 2008 | Chart Position: 1

Rihanna - Take A Bow
RihannaVEVO

By now, Rihanna had nabbed another No.1 with "Umbrella" and delivered a smash with the help of Michael Jackson's "mama-say, mama-sa, ma-ma koo-sah" on "Don't Stop the Music," so it was time for a slow-burner again. Reusing the formula of its predecessor, "Take A Bow" was a simplified piano-driven song (now punctuated with handclaps) co-penned by Ne-Yo. But more than just changing Rihanna's role (she was now the receiving end of the infidelity), the duo seemed to learn what dialing it back can do for a ballad. Gone was the overwrought emotion and nasal whine; here, instead of playing the victim, Rihanna sounded blissfully unbothered and gave us a sneak peek at her unapologetic insults: "Trying to apologize? You're so ugly when you cry."


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Song: "Diamonds" | Year: 2012 | Chart Position: 1

Rihanna - Diamonds
RihannaVEVO

After a slew of EDM anthems ("Only Girl In The World," "We Found Love," "Where Have You Been") and oversexed singles ("S&M," "Birthday Cake," "Cockiness"), "Diamonds" felt necessary. An enigma, but necessary. It felt laid-back, but not lazy; powerful but not plodding; and kinda like she was doing her best impression of co-writer Sia, but had also found a new timbre in her own voice that she wanted to explore. Like, we hadn't heard her pronounce her words in that way and with those inflections before. Listeners debated over whether she was belting or sounded bored. But in comparison to her other ballads, it—at the very least—felt like growth. The retellings of no-good relationships had been replaced by intentionally optimistic choices, and those cheesy chords were now a blend of thumping drums, electro synths, and orchestral elements that gave "Diamonds" a, well, shine so glossy, it turned catchy. Note that as the lead single of Unapologetic, it assisted in giving Ri her first No.1 album.


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Song: "Stay" | Year: 2013 | Chart Position: 3

Rihanna - Stay ft. Mikky Ekko
RihannaVEVO

Sure, piano returned on this track, but it was forgiven because "Stay" is to Rihanna what "Someone Like You" is to Adele. Because the keys are what backed Rihanna in giving us her most tender, but entrancing vocal delivery yet. Because she's not whispering on this, but that's how intimate it feels. There were no gimmicks. Just a stripped-down detailing of an ambivalence toward an all-encompassing love. She sounds both stunned and stunted by it. And be careful watching the video again because aside from still getting chills, it's proof that crying is contagious.


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Song: "Love on the Brain" | Year: 2016

Rihanna - Love On The Brain (Live From the 2016 Billboard Music Awards)
RihannaVEVO

The retro soul and doo-wop swing of "Love on the Brain" is a noted detour for Rihanna, but watch her slay it like it's her signature. She just as easily rides the plucky guitar and church organ beat with her playful falsetto as she does with her lungs-deep delivery. In under four minutes, she seamlessly blends a range of registers, playing the parts of both the meek and the master while growling and groaning and teasing and whining. It's anyone's guess why other ANTi attempt "Kiss It Better" couldn’t climb the charts but, as evidenced by this list (and because it's no secret that RiRi's vocals have improved tremendously over the past decade), taking chances hasn't exactly hurt her.

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