Rihanna likes to be in control. So much so that her management has given her an easy way to cut our interview short: Our chat is to take place in an SUV on the way from the Glamour shoot to her apartment, a short drive away. But she keeps talking—candidly and often hilariously, and instead of stopping at her front door, she has her driver circle the block again and again, and we talk more. What comes through more than anything is a tale of transformation: In February 2009, Rihanna endured the abuse of Chris Brown and the subsequent gossip frenzy. It was painful, she tells me, to lose control of her story and image that way; determined not to let that happen again, she has since reemerged as the architect of her own fascinating comeback. On her self-revealing albums Rated R and Loud, on Twitter (and, as of mid-July, the most popular female star on Facebook), in dramatic fashion choices and in interviews like this one, Rihanna has reinvented herself by becoming more, well, herself. “My whole life changed a couple years ago. That’s when I decided to let my guard down completely,” she says, sipping a Corona as the city scrolls by her tinted window. “There’s freedom in honesty. If you just face it today, tomorrow you can move on to something else.” Here’s Rihanna, very honestly.
GLAMOUR: I wanted to show you this list: total number-one hits. You’ve had 10, and you’re the youngest artist to ever hit that mark—you topped Mariah Carey. Plus, you did it faster than any solo artist in Billboard’s history: less than five years to 10 number ones.
RIHANNA: That’s kind of amazing. Damn. I’ve never actually seen this list laid out like this. It’s kind of mind-blowing. I try to just be very, very appreciative.
GLAMOUR: Can you top the Beatles?
RIHANNA: I’m heading there. If I fall short, I’m still in good company.
GLAMOUR: Your style has gotten more aggressive as your music has. Do you think of the two together in that way?
RIHANNA: Absolutely, and I don’t think of one without the other. My music definitely determines the direction we’re gonna move in. It’s like music, fashion, hair, makeup.
GLAMOUR: There are so many pop stars who blow up and then lose control. With you, from the moment you chopped your hair off, you were saying, “No, I’m in control of what I’m doing.”
RIHANNA: In the beginning of my career, it was really strict for me. I couldn’t wear pink or red lipstick; it was just bizarre. We had a young fan base, and they were trying to keep me fresh. But I just really wanted to be myself. I wanted to be sassy, the attitude, all these things that I am.
GLAMOUR: Your sound keeps evolving too, and your lyrics keep getting more complicated and raw.
RIHANNA: It was important for me to grow. Good Girl Gone Bad was the first time I really took the reins in my career creatively. Then Rated R came right after that, and that’s when I realized, OK, my fans love the music; now I need to get a little deep with them, get a little more vulnerable, open up.
GLAMOUR: That shift to more personal songs happened after everything with Chris Brown, and around the same time, you went on Twitter and developed a different connection with your fans.
RIHANNA: Definitely. That’s why I started Twitter. I was like, “Twitter is so dumb—why would I want anybody to know anything more about me?” But it was easy for my fans to believe everything else they were hearing about me—sites, blogs, rumors—because they weren’t really hearing much from me. Now they don’t believe rumors anymore, because they know me.
GLAMOUR: When you followed Chris Brown on Twitter, everyone freaked out and you jumped in with: “it’s…twitter, not the altar!” What was that about?
RIHANNA: That’s something people would love to make into more than it actually is, and I think that’s just something I’m gonna have to live with for the rest of my life, unfortunately.
GLAMOUR: There’s a lyric from “Rated R” that I love: “While you’re getting your cry on, I’m getting my fly on.” That struck me as the ultimate retail-therapy lyric.
RIHANNA: You’re right. It’s retail therapy for sure, but it’s also a very mean line, very cocky, very arrogant. It’s a character I play.
GLAMOUR: It seems like when guys play characters—like Eminem in your controversial song together, “Love the Way You Lie,” about an abusive couple—nobody thinks that’s the real Eminem. But it does seem like when you do a song like that, everybody thinks that’s the real Rihanna.
RIHANNA: Absolutely, and I’m very careful about the lyrics that I sing now because of that. Rated R was the album that became really real, very honest. After that, it’s hard to go back to doing songs that are fiction. There was no coming back.
GLAMOUR: I’ve heard you say that the dramatic lyrics of “S&M,” your megahit, are both metaphorical and literal.
RIHANNA: Yeah! I had no idea how close “S&M” was to me until maybe five months ago. When I was singing it, it was a fun song, and I directed it at my love-hate relationship with the media, but it went so much further than that, and I didn’t even realize it. Then I started putting pieces of the puzzle together, seeing how it related to my childhood and how it can affect me in my adult life.
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