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#R9 Is Coming: Rihanna's upcoming album is primed to be one of music's most significant

Da’Shan Smith

 // Jul 19, 2018

Artist // Instagram

Earlier this week, members of the Rihanna Navy flooded Twitter timelines with a mocking annoyance as their leading Admiral announced yet another campaign for… Savage x Fenty, her lingerie line. "Where is the album?" has been the central question turned into a mob-like chant, not only coming from her most adamant support base, but just about everyone in the general public. This morning, Rolling Stone provided a glimmer of hope to those expecting answers: According to the magazine's exclusive sources, Rihanna has been recording her yet-to-be-titled ninth studio album for the past year. And judging by the mass hype behind the tiniest of elusive updates, #R9 is about to dominate, resulting in Rih changing the game yet again.

With a successful run of her last studio album, 2016's ANTi, and a sporadic handful of featured hits, the recording artist managed to defy odds and sonically shapeshift the attitude of the industry in the past two years. She earned her title as a streaming pioneer when she became the first female artist to amass two billion streams on Apple Music— with three (going on five) albums streamed a billion times on Spotify. It started to become clear that everyone's checking for what Ms. Fenty is up to next, as she simultaneously collected the overdue accolades and recognition she's been snubbed, or undermined, since practically the start of her career.

Back in May, in Rihanna's cover story for the June issue of Vogue, it was revealed that #R9 would be a "reggae album," which has now transformed into an all-encompassing "dancehall album." Me being one of her many overzealous and loyal fans, I couldn't help but imagine the interviewer asking Rihanna about any possible new music, her sighing at the expected inquiry, looking squarely into that person's eyes and responding "I'm currently recording a reggae album." Of course, that answer probably had some snark to it—as she most likely conceived the idea after her iconic, headline-making diss to Diplo's style of gentrified, "reggae song[s] in an airport," in 2017.

Weeks after that Vogue interview, I started rifting with fellow Navy mutuals online, prompting me to mawkishly tweet, "I believe #R9 is going to be one of the biggest pop eras in the history of the industry, like ever!" But let's take out the modifier "pop" and simply say "biggest eras period!"

If there is any mainstream artist out right now that can successfully—and authentically—tackle dancehall and reggae, it's a no-brainer that would be Robyn Rihanna Fenty. Her track record proves that to be the case, not only in America but internationally. Her debut single, 2005's "Pon de Replay," reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, just to be blocked by the powerhouse comeback single of Mariah Carey, "We Belong Together." While many were mistakenly casting the Bajan teen sensation as an one-hit wonder, she was too busy selling 500,000 copies of her Music of the Sun album in the U.S. alone, while pushing the follow up single "If It's Lovin' That You Want" in the Top 40 here, Top 20 in the UK, and Top 10 in Australia, Ireland, and Belgium.

From there, Rihanna successfully transitioned into a full-fledged force in R&B and pop—her Caribbean-flavored singles, of wide-ranging musical styles from the region, furthering her legacy. Rihanna has 14 No. 1 singles in the U.S. and, of them, three are dancehall-based: "Rude Boy" for five weeks in 2010, "What's My Name" for a week that same year, and "Work" for nine in 2016. Internationally, these singles have also topped the charts of various countries, proving that whenever Rihanna does dancehall, it's a guaranteed success. And although, they didn't hit No. 1, "Break It Off" featuring Sean Paul, "You Da One," and "Man Down" still managed high-charting success (the latter hitting No. 1 in France).

But the real Rihanna fans know that those singles barely scratch the surface when it comes to her discography. The best gems exist in the deep cuts, whether that be "Let Me" from Music of the Sun, "Dem Haters" of A Girl Like Me, or her pinnacle Navy highlight "Watch N' Learn" from Talk That Talk. Rihanna has a knack for blending genres while simultaneously submersing herself into their cultures. "Kisses Don't Lie" from A Girl Like Me is one of her best examples of morphing rock with reggae and pop cadences, recalling the 80s Bob Marley cuts she favored in that Vogue interview. One can only imagine the territory she sought out and is currently chasing sonically with #R9. For all we know dancehall could become "dancehall-techno" for track two, "dancehall rapping" for the fifth, and "bluesy dancehall" for the eighth. The possibilities are limitless.

What's also going to be significant for #R9 is its cultural impact. Previously, I've explored how Rihanna subtly brings mainstream awareness to her culture through her music and image. It may seem to the general public that she simply does stuff to be cool, but in actuality Rihanna is fully in the know about how to cause conversations regarding a black woman's importance in society, as well as the idiosyncrasies of her Bajan culture. Rihanna simply lives her life in that truth—and when doing so, she provides master classes to the woefully ignorant that can't seem to fathom that.

What's a telling sign of this being the case for #R9 is the fact that she's primarily working with producers and songwriters from the West Indies in order to continue capturing dancehall's authentic sound, and to keep its legacy alive. Going back to that Diplo comment, with this gesture Rihanna is making it known that there won't be any white-washing intercepting the black-rooted genre. One that the industry has been exploiting in the most counterfeit of ways for years. A source told Rolling Stone that, of the 500 songs recorded, "Every artist, every producer, every songwriter in Jamaica or of Jamaican descent has been working on [Rihanna's album] and has little snippets of publishing or production credits on it." It's that community spirit, and ability to launch the careers of unknowns, that lives up to the earnest importance of her self-proclaimed moniker "the Black Madonna."

#R9 is also bound to be exciting because of the visuals we could expect. Unanimously, those that watched her four performances during her 2016 MTV VMA Video Vanguard tribute, enjoyed the passa passa she turned the stage into while performing all three of her No. 1 dancehall hits. One can imagine how the industry's chameleon will channel that energy in her hairstyles, costuming, and set designs for music videos and live performances. It's a given that she will be able to tie in her Fenty brands of lingerie, make-up, and leisure wear into her visuals, while also using the music as promotional tools for those respective businesses.

This upcoming release will also provide history lessons on the music's culture. Since last year, it's been rumored what dancehall legends could grace the album through fresh writing credits, possible samples, and features. Buju Banton has been registered underneath ASCAP for a song called "Phatty," which might be included on the finalized tracklist. Popcaan's name has been circulating as a possible collaborator (as both artists were in London at the same time earlier this summer). Although she's not a dancehall artist, music fans would love for a Cardi B collaboration, as she proved she could hang with "La Modelo"—possibly giving us a dancehall-reggaeton fusion for #R9. And thanks to Rihanna's extended history of covering songs, from Dawn Penn's "You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)" on Music to Tame Impala's "Same Ol Mistakes" on ANTi, could we possibly experience a Bob Marley tribute of sorts?

What's fascinating about #R9 is how it brings everything full circle for a woman who has been dominant and untouchable for years. There's already reports that labels and pop artists are digging in the crates of "Rihjected" songs from the cutting room floor, already looking to follow yet another trend the Bad Gal's about to set. At the beginning of the music video for "Pon de Replay," her friend complains about the DJ playing the music "too low." With her confident attitude, Rihanna promises "I'll make him turn it up!" Well, that might just be the case for all of us when it comes to #R9, whenever that fateful day shall arrive!


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