In 2012, men straight lost their minds over this woman—Chris Brown’s crazy neck tattoo, Brown and Drake’s nightclub riot. She drove the rest of us wild, too. And that was all before Rihanna dropped the sexiest, most outrageous album of the year
At nine fifteen, Rihanna’s black Escalade pulls up in front of Emilio’s Ballato, Andy Warhol’s Nolita Italian restaurant of choice, a circus in tow. Her army of bodyguards surveys the scene. Then one of Rihanna’s long legs hits the pavement and it’s madness. There are paparazzi everywhere, all at once, perching on bicycles and European motorbikes, firing out of Mercedes-Benz windows and SUV sunroofs, pushing in on every square foot of sidewalk. The cameras strobe around her like a Ferris wheel.
Rihanna glides through the melee and into the foyer, where her signed photograph hangs. She’s sporting skintight black jeans, black shades, a black cutoff designer sweatshirt with oversize gold letters. (ORIGINAL, it says.) With her dahlia-shade lips, big anime eyes, and slow-motion strut, she looks like some neo-noir femme fatale en route to her next hit.
“That was intense,” I stammer, emerging from the whiteout of flashes and the theatrics of Rihanna arrives at dinner.
“I guess you’re used to it by now. But my heart kind of…”
“You’re never used to it,” she says. “It’s chaos.”
Robyn Rihanna Fenty rides swells of chaos and controversy and celebrity with the nerve and control of a champion big-wave surfer. When we meet in October, she’s on the verge of releasing Unapologetic, her seventh studio album in seven years. (The last six have sold more than a million copies each.) She’s been named the most downloaded artist ever, the most popular star on Facebook, the sexiest woman alive; she’s reached nearly 3 billion views on YouTube; she’s Rihanna Inc., a multimillion-dollar enterprise. She’s 24. “Sometimes a person looks at me and sees dollars. They see numbers and they see a product, ” she says. “I look at me and see art. If I didn’t like what I was doing, then I would say I was committing slavery. ”
There’s a group of goons conspiring in the restaurant’s private back room, and Rihanna blows them a kiss. Her publicist and assistant take a table nearby. She sits across from me with the posture of a boarding-school equestrian.
I bring up her body art, and she jokes about almost getting inked on her face the night before. “The tattoo artist said nope, I’m not gonna do it,” she says, “because if you’re looking at your face, it’s right there staring at you.” Before the entrées arrive, she’s interviewing the interviewer. I’m getting into my recent breakup, the empty space in my closet, and she’s saying, very bro-like, “Life can be such a dick sometimes, right?”
She sometimes gets grouped with theatrical pop stars like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Nicki Minaj. But those are one-woman masquerade balls, their real selves hidden behind the next costume change. Rihanna, on the other hand, comes off as wild, weird, unfiltered, a little unhinged, which just makes everyone else go all unhinged. Onstage, she’ll tap out the beat on her pussy and croon lyrics like Suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion. Online, she’ll tweet a chicken-soup Bible passage to her 26 million followers and then an Instagram shot of a stripper’s head between her thighs. And there’s her tabloid-epic personal life (we’ll get to that). She once said she wants to be “the black Madonna.” But there’s none of the Material Girl’s self-conscious Catholic angst here.
“That comes from my culture,” she says with her Bajan steel-drum accent. “That’s just the way it’s always been, and I think that for people, especially in America, they make it like the forbidden fruit, but that only makes kids more curious.” When Rihanna was starting out, after being discovered by a vacationing music producer in Barbados, she didn’t realize she was doing anything other than what she had grown up doing in the dance halls. “I was a lot more naive about the way I moved and the way I was being perceived. The more you hear people talk about ‘Oh, you’re a sex symbol,’ it just makes you think, ‘Why are you saying that?’ And I figured it out.”
I ask what turns her on, because I know she’ll answer. “I like to feel like a woman,” she says. “I have to be in control in every other aspect of my life, so I feel like in a relationship, like I wanted to be able to take a step back and have somebody else take the lead.” Do you ever switch things up? I ask. “I could absolutely be dominant,” she answers. “But, in general, I’d rather… How do I say this in like a…non-X-rated version?” Right. Lastly, any boundaries I should know about? “Love makes you go places you probably wouldn’t ever go, had it not been for love. But I think everybody still has their limits.”
Rihanna’s penthouse at the Hotel Gansevoort looks like the cargo hold of the Titanic after hitting the iceberg. Members of her entourage sit on suitcases. Blunts circulate. Highlights from Basketball Wives play on the TV.
Her producer, The-Dream, comes in, wearing gold diamond-studded Jesus doubloons that hang down to his belt, a Rolex on each wrist. A former drum-line player, he wrote Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and Rihanna’s megahit “Umbrella.” She harmonizes various samples: Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” a little Patti Smith. She’s infectious. The-Dream beat-boxes, pounding his fist against the door.
“I want to make music that’s hopeful, uplifting. Nothing corny or supersentimental,” she told me. “I just want it to have the feeling that brings you out of whatever you’re going through. I want it to spark that fire. I want it to be real, authentic, and raw.” In a song like “We Found Love,” her biggest hit ever, Rihanna combines Lee “Scratch” Perry’s lo-fi intonations with dark, almost dystopian lyrics and somehow produces a catchy dance tune. The effect is uncanny, that eeriness to her voice; the hair on the back of your neck stands up, but your body starts moving.
Now she starts riffing on The-Dream’s song “Foreplay,” half-whispering, half-droning: Bitch, fuck the foreplay, I want it now. We’re talking straight sex. It’s going down! Her ass gyrates circles into the edge of the hotel room bed, and the blankets come untucked.
The group erupts with laughter, and she chides The-Dream: “You need to write me that shit. No pop shit. None of that lovey-dovey shit…. It’s gotta be tweet, retweet, trending topic!”
WE all head out to a club in the meatpacking district, Griffin. But by the time we get there, Rihanna’s mood has noticeably shifted. She’s detached, rocking hypnotically, slow-dancing solo. Then the DJs shout out names of the stars there that night: Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Rihanna, and Chris Brown.
The last name reverberates over a clamorous 2 Chainz track. The crowd does a double take, like Chris Brown? Here we go!
In 2009 her former boyfriend beat her up so bad she had to go to the hospital. During an emotional interview with Oprah this summer, she said Chris needed help at the time. The singer’s still on probation for bashing her. (She agreed to ease the restraining order in 2011.)
Then there was the brawl back in June involving Brown and rapper Drake, whom she was maybe dating for a bit, at a Manhattan club. Reportedly, Brown had sent the rapper champagne, and Drake returned the gift with a note saying, “I’m fucking the love of your life.” Next thing you knew, the place turned into the Greeks versus the Trojans, with her as Helen of Troy. I’d asked her about it at dinner. Her tone turned impenetrable, lawyerly: “There’s no proof of that being for my love. That’s my answer to that question.” Then she immediately turned it back on me:
“You ever have bitches fight over you?”
Anyway, it can’t be a coincidence, she and Brown being here together. By the morning, the tabloid story of their encounter—the woman who drives men crazy, going back to a man the world thinks is at least a little bit nuts—will be everywhere. But here’s what I witness:
Chris Brown brashly stands on top of his bench in the neighboring booth. He and Rihanna start tossing flirtatious glances like kids passing notes in middle-school math class. The smirks and the playfulness continue until they’re dancing with each other from afar. Then, out of mock frustration, Brown climbs over the top of the booth. A mischievous tingle of controversy vibrates through the club.
There, in the middle of all the craziness: Rihanna stares straight at me and passes me a spliff. She turns her green-hazel Bambi gaze back to Brown and begins to sway those famous hips from side to side. It’s 2 a.m. She looks like she’s just getting started.
“This is some movie shit, ladies and gentlemen!” the DJ bellows. “We see you, Chris and Rihanna!”