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Ranking Rihanna's 15 most underappreciated music gems

Da’Shan Smith

 // Sep 12, 2018

Artist // Instagram

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


At this point, there’s no use of asking that central question pertaining to Rihanna’s #R9. We've all asked it and, for now, we’ll just have to sit here and eat our food.

In the meantime, the beauty of being a stan for an artist—who just so happens to enjoy taking her sweet time releasing new music after supplying so much at her start—is revisiting that extensive discography. There are the popular singles such as “We Found Love,” “Rude Boy,” and “What’s My Name” to reminisce about with friends, while some deep cuts like “Desperado” receive equal love on the internet.

But what about the singles, features, and deep cuts from Rihanna’s catalogue that haven’t received the roses they deserve? The songs that have either been snubbed from the public conscious, are panned by some Navy members themselves, or don’t enter the conversation as much as others.

Here’s a ranking of 15 Rihanna songs from the recording entrepreneur that require a bit more attention from music listeners.



15. “Watch n' Learn” (2011)

There’s “No Love Allowed,” “Man Down,” and “Red Lipstick,” which are some of the few underappreciated cuts that make up Rihanna’s West Indies collection. Then there’s the dynamic explosiveness of this Talk That Talk staple. “Watch n' Learn” is sheer fun, finding Rihanna at one of her most confident. She’s witty in her punchlines and efficiently maneuvers through the mouthful of a hook. This is the case of a Rihanna song that could have potentially been more if released as a single. The entertainer has only performed "Watch n' Learn" during a festival circuit in summer 2012, but after her usage of the song in a Fenty Beauty promo last year, something says more “Watch n' Learn” moments could be coming her next tour season.

14. “Phresh Out The Runway” (2012)

In hindsight, the signs on where Rihanna would be heading with her entire fashion empire were heavily ignored. “Phresh Out The Runway” laid it all out on the table during the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Remember how Rih slayed the catwalk in pink Adam Selman-designed lingerie and Manolo Blahnik booties—making Justin Bieber’s jaw drop? Or when she asked herself, “How could you be so good, but you so phuckin’ pop?” as a means to poke fun at her musical style and artistic presence? And how she primetime-edited those explicit mafioso-gangstress lyrics—fittingly underscored by a reving EDM, haute couture-beat—like a true savage would…?

cues Homer Simpson's “d’oh!”

13. “Fading” (2010)

Rihanna sampling Enya? Yes, that’s right: Rihanna sampled Enya. Any music fan should understand the importance of a sample coming from Enya, a classical, new wave instrumentalist hailing from Ireland— best known for her post-9/11 hit “Only Time.” The Fugees sampled her Celtic classic “Boadicea” on “Ready or Not,” as did Mario Winans and Diddy on “I Don’t Wanna Know.” Rihanna’s LOUD deep cut opts for the strings and overdubbed angelic “ah’s” from Enya’s “One by One,” a song released alongside “Only Time” on the tracklist of A Day Without Rain. Accompanying “Fading’s” 808-enhanced, Polow Da Don production, is an Ester Dean co-penned hook that floats in Rih’s signature boastful manner. During her 'LOUD Tour,' Rihanna gave audience members a chance to vote on whether she should perform the Avril Lavigne-sampling “Cheers (Drink To That)” or “Fading.” All tour locations—except Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Winnipeg, Anaheim, and Philadelphia—selected what would eventually become a popular single, “Cheers.” I guess most of the Navy must have loved Avril Lavigne’s “With You” and shots of Jameson a bit more than ghosting exes to Enya.



12. “American Oxygen” (2015)

Really all three of the pre-ANTi singles of 2015 should be strung along into this one, but “American Oxygen” receives the sole spot due to its commercial performance. While the Paul McCartney and Kanye West-assisted “FourFiveSeconds” charted at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 (even No. 1 internationally) and “Bitch Better Have My Money” at No. 15, the ANTi National Anthem only peaked at No. 78. But, “American Oxygen’s” importance extends beyond chart positions, as it made a statement about current political affairs regarding citizenship. As an immigrant who has found mass success on U.S. soil, Rihanna revamps "The Star-Spangled Banner" in her signature drifty, trap style: “Oh say, can you see—this is the American Dream,” well after instructing “breathe out, breathe in, ‘American Oxygen.’” In the music video, she stands silhouette to a background of images reflecting the American flag, archival clips of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and the inauguration of Barack Obama. These visuals not only spoke loudly to American history, but also represented a perspective coming from a proud black woman who, in her own right, provided the soundtrack to our current culture.

11. “We Ride” (2006)

It’s hard to believe that “We Ride” failed to make the Billboard Hot 100, especially considering how it fell in line with other self-assured bops that pop&B divas were releasing that year. Maybe critics and audiences were too wrapped up in the Beyoncé-Ciara-Rihanna faux competition and comparisons to really give “We Ride” a chance. The highlight of this song, and the divergent moment that really makes it moreso a standout, is the laser-fast bridge: “Just blame yourself cause you blew it / I won’t forget how you do it.” Here, Rihanna access her sharp skill of flipping the pace of her songs on her own terms. It’s also one of the first instances where we see the soon-to-be Bad Gal’s quickness to bounce back and move forward from a broken relationship, in lyrical context, despite how deep her feelings may truly go. By song’s outlude, we’re reminded how quickly the catchiness of her songs can creep up in the least expected way.

10. “Numb” (2012)

Since the release of Unapologetic, Rihanna enjoys adding this haunting deep cut to her tour setlist. And while it nicely embellishes its partnered cuts “Pour It Up,” “Birthday Cake,” “Cockiness (Love It),” and “Bitch Better Have My Money,” the crowds are usually least responsive to “Numb.” Lately, I’ve stumbled across die-hard Navy who don’t acknowledge “Numb” in the category of Rihanna’s ultimate best. And thus, yours truly, the contrarian, speaks again… “Numb” is an important marker of Rihanna’s conceptual storytelling on her albums. At the start of Unapologetic, she’s enjoying the perks of being the “It Girl”—a fashion icon who blazes “Phresh Out The Runway” and then shines bright like “Diamonds” in the sky. By the LP’s third track, the character of Rihanna is high off the “ECSTA-SAAYYY in the air” of “Numb.” Why “Numb” has always been a standout for me is how unorthodox, perplexing, and ambitious it is. There’s a hypnotic Egyptian snake charmer flute backboning the track, but also a swaying rocksteady riddim with hints of Arabic influence overriding it. A distorted interpolation of Kanye West’s champagne-smasher “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” appears throughout the track. Rihanna’s vocal performance resembles the loopiness of the production, purposefully dragging in a lower register. As many regard ANTi as Rihanna’s magnum opus, I can’t help but start to believe that “Numb” served as a primary influencers on that LP’s minimalistic direction.



9. “Sell Me Candy” (2007)

While Good Girl Gone Bad collected its much deserved accolades and praise—fully launching Rihanna into the upper echelons of modern international stardom—its deep cuts also need to enter the conversation. The standard and Reloaded deluxe editions of her third studio album both have timeless replay value with hardly any skips. Still there’s the woulda-coulda-shoulda cuts on every Rihanna album that deserved to be singles, with “Sell Me Candy” working as a top contender. Even if it rings in at an interlude timeframe of 2 minutes and 45 seconds. In the middle of the dance-pop and rock-tinged uptempos that construct GGGB stands “Sell Me Candy.” It’s almost as if you can taste confectionery by listening to Timbaland’s production on the track. “Sell Me Candy” takes on the essence of its LP’s title, as Rihanna’s performance resembles that of a student disguising her sneaky ways with charm. When the singer approaches the chorus, she matches the sweetness oozing through the hyperactive production, showcasing an effortless agility in leading the chaotic track.

8. “Do Ya Thang” (2011)

It’s not often that we recognize Rihanna’s natural ability to inject folk-pop into her hip-hop and R&B defined cuts. There’s “We All Want Love” from Talk That Talk, “Never Ending” from ANTi, and of course “FourFiveSeconds.” But as a bonus track for Talk That Talk, “Do Ya Thang” incorporates this sound and then some. While the mood of Talk That Talk is heavy club bangers—all delivered in urgent manners—the bonus tracks slow down the pace a little. “Do Ya Thang” recalls the lightness in Rihanna’s repertoire. She’s able to turn a confrontation about lovers who have wandering eyes, flirting tendencies, and consequential jealousy into a happy-go-lucky tune embracing confidence and trust in a partnership. With The-Dream and Kuk Harrell as the producers behind “Do Ya Thang,” and Rihanna as the song’s sole songwriter, there’s another timeless sensibility in her discography. The song resembles the aesthetic of 80s music, particularly the UK-influenced synthpop sound that would end up as a theme for a John Hughes film, balanced by the dreaminess of Prince’s most anthemic stadium music.

7. “Princess of China” (2011)

One facet of Rihanna’s artistry that doesn’t receive enough recognition (if at all any) is her tastemaking role when it comes to alternative rock and indie pop. This would trace beyond her covering Tame Impala’s “Same Ol Mistakes” or sampling The xx on “Drunk On Love.” Her prime instance of targeting the Triple-A (Adult Album Alternative) and Adult Pop radio demographics would end up on Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto. The tranquil harmonies of the British band would be influenced by Rihanna, “Princess of China” being more akin to the distorted and stunted affect of her sound, particularly when Rihanna reaches the bridge: “I could've been a princess, you'd be a king / Could've had a castle, and worn a ring / But no, you let me go!” Out of all of Coldplay’s duets this one arguably stands as one of the highlights, and for Rihanna it’s simply one of her most vulnerable and best featured parts.



6. “Kisses Don’t Lie” (2006)

One analysis of Rihanna’s musical trajectory that will never not be annoying is the idea that she became a force after Good Girl Gone Bad. And while the general public seems set in this belief, the statistics show that Rihanna’s presence has been strong since her debut with “Pon de Replay.” In these conversations, her sophomore effort A Girl Like Me is often neglected although it boasts a No. 1 hit and two more Top 10 singles. But taking sales and radio play out the discussion once again, the deep cuts on A Girl focused more on Rihanna’s balladry. This is where “Kisses Don’t Lie” stands out from the rest, as it toys with pop&B and rocksteady reggae. Of course, kisses and deception would become a recurring theme in Rihanna’s lyrical content for later discography.

5. “Willing To Wait” (2005)

Just as A Girl experiences, so does her debut effort Music of the Sun. It’s still quite bizarre stumbling upon comments online that tend to downplay the significance of RiRi’s proper introduction to the game. But that’s a topic for another article… Music of the Sun is primarily rooted by Rihanna’s Bajan heritage, but it also highlights her appreciation for the various styles of music she grew up on. “Willing To Wait” is a twinkling slow jam that discusses abstinence, aligning with her then-synonymous image with innocence. Although it sonically plays like Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile,” “Willing To Wait” samples Deniece Williams' breezy 1976 classic “Free,” giving its production that affect. This is all juxtaposed by the cut “There’s A Thug In My Life,” which would be the earliest precursor to “Rude Boy.” That song samples DeBarge’s “A Dream” which, in turn, was famously sampled on Blackstreet’s “Don’t Leave Me.” This could have gone unnoticed until now, but Music of the Sun, particularly with “Willing To Late,” contains some of the aughts true moments of hip-hop soul.

4. “Woo” (2016)

There’s an off-course recklessness with “Woo” that just works for the conceptual arc of ANTi. Prior to this track, “Desperado” sees Rihanna on her own, finding herself without her partner who's too busy at “Work.” It’s at “Woo,” where she no longer cares for him, slyly letting him know that she too has her side lovers, but to at least still check up every now and then. The genius behind this song lies in two components. First, the offhand trap sound and how that ruckus genuinely complements the rowdiness of heavy metal guitars and 90s grunge angst. And second, the intentional omission of Travis Scott from a featured credit—he plays his part, on the side in the background ad-libbing “yeah,” also playing the game of “Woo.” It’s these moments, like on “Love on the Brain,” that reflect how well Rihanna’s music not only understands generational romances, but makes those ideas transcend for different eras of lovers to relate.



3. “As Real As You And Me” (2015)

Rihanna’s consistent venturing into film lead to her starring voiceover role in the animated film Home and an executive producer credit for its soundtrack. Of her three featured cuts on the soundtrack, this slow-winding ballad falls in last place in terms of streams. The list of emotive slow-tempoed tunes from Rihanna’s catalogue are endless—from Rated R’s “Fire Bomb” and “Cold Case Love” to ANTi’s “Close To You.” However, none of them were backed by the adorable storyline of a young girl finding her own existence in the world with the help of an alien. “As Real As You And Me” may be Rihanna’s most emotionally raw and equally nurturing on a track. Her mezzo-soprano range—dipping into a feathery light falsetto in the chorus and a piercing low register on the title’s mention—drives the song’s tearjerker power. “As Real As You and Me” simply dazzles in elegance, fitting enough for a going away ceremony or the first dance at a wedding reception. It’s a song meant to be dedicated to the one you love, and those cuts are always beautiful coming from Rih.

2. “ROCKSTAR 101” (2009)

When I think about how Rihanna has bulldozed through the industry to be knighted “Most Influential Musician of the 21st Century” by NPR or “Most Influential Pop Singer of the Past Decade” by Pitchfork, I now flashback to this Rated R single. The a-ha moment clicked last month when Rihanna teased the world with an Instagram clip of her listening to “Rockstar 101” while in the studio recording for what is most likely #R9. The reason why she’s earned these titles is because, well duh, she’s “a rockstar!”

re-cues Homer Simpson’s “d’oh!”

This song in particular set the attitude for Rihanna’s musical legacy, as well as outlined the blueprint for her broad appeal. Not only did it spell out her on-stage persona, it also reflected how much rock music has played a part in authentically separating her style from her peers. And Rihanna’s the type of artist that doesn’t just talk that talk, but actually walk its walk (with a co-sign from legendary guitarist Slash and video cameo from drummer Travis Barker). Rated R, itself, is an album that melds pop into R&B into rock into hip-hop—all the core components of Rihanna’s sound. “Rockstar 101” successfully keeps that momentum alive, constituting a noteworthy example of a musician reclaiming the culture’s importance in reshaping the rock genre throughout generations. Despite the song peaking at just No. 64 on the charts with fairly little promotion, “ROCKSTAR 101” remains a staple amongst the Navy, with the general public finally seeming to wake up to what the song prophesied—or, better yet, recognized a fact from the jump.

1. “Kiss It Better” (2016)

So with every rockstar comes the single that…say it with me, Navy: “deserved better!”

The significance of “Kiss It Better” should receive its own separate essay—and anyone who appreciates the cut will understand why. This standout from ANTi is a mood-setter for the album, being the first sign that rock would play a larger role on the LP’s entire soundscape. But what “Kiss It Better” accomplishes best is Rihanna’s stated goal of making timeless music. Sometimes as a member of the Navy, I got a little upset when Rihanna had to specify this direction, mainly because we’ve always felt her music has been timeless. And judging by the extended streaming records Rihanna continues to break without releasing any new music since 2017, it seems the rest of the world secretly had that thought all along.

However, “Kiss It Better” provides the best example of this timeless effect. Its sound is late-80s and early-90s power pop and soft rock, taking after Prince and the song’s guitarist Nuno Bettencourt of the rock band Extreme. The lyrics about what it takes to fix a broken relationship are relatable across generations, particularly appealing to the followers of trap&B. Rihanna’s vocal performance is rich, borrowing a few dramatic cues from her love of belting karaoke classics like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer.” Her ad-libs are at their strongest ever, making the emotions that much more believable. And no one would be as natural delivering the lines “man, phuck yo' pride” in the trademark fashion that Rihanna does on this standout.

We all pretty much know why we still (to this date) shout “'Kiss It Better' deserved more!” But for those that don’t know the story, here’s an abbreviated version: While promoting ANTi, Rihanna released “Kiss It Better” as the A-side to “Needed Me.” Of course, “Needed Me” slowly climbed to the Top 10, simultaneously sparking a new wave of savage trap-pop, while “Kiss It Better” stalled for radio play, eventually peaking at No. 62. Then there's the standom wound of Maxwell taking home "Kiss It Better's" destined Grammy for Best R&B Song, leading to a year's worth of ANTi was snubbed.”



But this is what builds Rihanna’s musical repertoire: her elements of greatness being snubbed the first go-round, appreciated by those who truly understand her artistic journey, until everyone else is finally ready to join. And if you're consistent Navy, after awhile, you get acclimated to this fact of life.


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