Why Rihanna’s The Ultimate Hustler: An Examination Of Her Total Chart Domination

Hey, y’all! My name is Sam Lansky, and I think, write and tweet compulsively about pop music. See, while normal people are out enjoying their lives, I’m analyzing why things in Taylor Swift songs always seem to happen on Tuesdays. I’m trying to figure out whether Cassie would look hotter if she shaved the right side of her head rather than the left. I’m feverishly typing out 4,000-word essays about Britney Spears‘ mental health. (No, really — I did that.)

And now I’ll be channeling my neurosis into my weekly Buzzworthy column, “Pop Think,” where I solemnly swear to leave no chart flop undefended, no inexplicable lyric unanalyzed, and no wig theft unexamined. And I’ll do it all in the name of pop.

You’re welcome.

Credit: Getty Images

Rihanna recently announced that the title of her upcoming sixth studio album will be Talk That Talk; I think a more apropos title would be I Don’t Know How She Does It. (Just kidding — that’s the title of a Sarah Jessica Parker movie that I never made time to watch.) But really, how does Rihanna do it? I ask this question not as a Rihanna Stan — although I love her, I’m not quite as fevered in my admiration as card-carrying members of the Rihanna Navy — but more from the perspective of an awestruck civilian. (My truest pop fanboy devotion will always belong to JoJo. Love you, girl.)

Backing up a minute, in case you missed it, after Rihanna’s new Calvin Harris-assisted single “We Found Love” charted at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 last week, the Bajan banger, as she’s affectionately known around my apartment, scored her 20th Top 10 single. Chart geeks know, though, that this isn’t even the full story: Rihanna nabbed 20 Top 10 hits over a span of six years and four months, hitting this milestone quicker than any other solo artist in chart history and eclipsing previous record-holder Madonna. The only act to do it faster was the Beatles (!!!). Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts at Billboard, told me: “When ‘Pon de Replay’ came out in 2005, there could have been no one, not even Jay-Z, who truly thought that this woman would go on to have 10 No. 1s and 20 Top 10 singles — and be mentioned, at least in terms of chart success, in the same breath as Madonna, the Supremes and Mariah Carey.”

The moral of this story? Rihanna’s got mad hustle, y’all. Maybe this sounds obvious — it goes without saying that the demands of being an international superstar require superhuman ambition, military-grade endurance and the pain threshold necessary to stagger around in skyscraper-high Louboutins for 16 hours a day — but RiRi’s game is even slicker than your average diva. That’s not to say it’s complicated, because it’s not — it’s just stupid impressive, the triple punch of ferocious singles, a constantly shifting image and rapid-fire releases.
Read more about Rihanna’s chart domination after the jump!

So, let’s recap: Her debut single, 2005′s “Pon de Replay,” seamlessly integrated dancehall and reggae influences. A year later, “SOS” sampled Soft Cell‘s “Tainted Love,” infusing the track with a sultry and unexpected burst of New Wave funk. As Rihanna developed a clearer artistic stance, the innovation came fast and hard: The futuristic rock roar of “Umbrella” and high-NRG Eurodance on “Don’t Stop the Music,” the sleekly nonsensical crunch of “Disturbia,” then glacial pop injected with sneering island swagger on “Rude Boy.” The Loud era brought with it a string of massive No. 1s: the euphoric grandeur of “Only Girl (In the World),” atmospheric ska drums on “What’s My Name,” scabrous Depeche Mode-referencing house on “S&M.” Now, on “We Found Love,” Rihanna’s vocals relinquish center stage to Calvin Harris’ synths in a crisp distillation of minimalist house.

Her biggest songs are united by their dance-pop sound, and this fits, given that Rihanna is the girl who famously told Paper Magazine way back in 2007 that she wanted to be “the black Madonna.” She’s well on her way — her taste is as dangerous and defiant as her music is at its best. As she’s evolved, Rihanna has traded long, honeyed waves for sleek, asymmetrical bobs, pixie cuts and fire-engine-red corkscrew curls. Gone were the denim skirts and baby doll dresses, replaced with architectural Alexandre Vauthier furs, color-blocked Jil Sander pantsuits and Vivienne Westwood gowns replete with punk detail. You’d be hard-pressed to think of any chick in the game whose aesthetic is so diverse, kaleidoscopic and protean.

But more than anything else, she’s managed to keep her music ubiquitous. Has there been a point over the last five years when there hasn’t been a Rihanna single on heavy rotation? The woman is an absolute machine, churning out dazzling pop hits at breakneck speed. Many hugely talented artists would be happy to let a single as potent as “Only Girl (In the World)” dominate the charts for awhile; Rihanna, instead, released “Only Girl” on Sept. 10, 2010, then pushed “What’s My Name?” to radio on Oct. 29 of last year, a mere six weeks later. (Both, lest you forget, went to No. 1.) In the space of 11 months, she serviced no less than seven singles to radio, including four Top 10 hits. Her seventh single, “Cheers (Drink to That),” was still rising on the charts when “We Found Love” was released. Admittedly, it’s kind of dizzying to think about just how much work all this must be. If she ever decides to take a real vacation, it’ll be long overdue, but until her endurance starts to wane, it’s difficult to conceive of how Rihanna could get knocked off her throne.

So I say, cheers to the freakin’ HBIC. Keep it up and you might just make a sailor out of me yet.

Sam Lansky is a writer and editor from New York City. He goes hard for Swedish pop music, Real Housewives GIFs, and juice. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.