When people write about Robyn Rihanna Fentys singing, they often use words like flat or thin or limitationssomething that suggests her voice is the secret defect hiding in her otherwise-brilliant plumage, the limp disguised by the swagger. She doesnt have the range, as the deathless meme had it. It is indisputably the aspect of her art that gets the least critical attention. And yet listen to radio, when Rihanna isnt on itwhich, granted, isnt too oftenand you will hear molecules of her vocal style swarming around everywhere. Even-toned, husky but nasal, tinged with island breezes but essentially free of regional markersthat describes a whole lot of pop songs now, by a whole lot of people. My ears perked up most recently at the beginning of Lordes Green Light: Between the the lightly taunting way Lorde clips the word bite and the growling dip to I hear sounds in my mind, Rihannas ambient influence creeps in, like blunt smoke curling under a closed door. Once you realize that Rihanna is the most influential vocal stylist of pops last decade, it becomes almost impossible to escape her. Pick any major contemporary dance-pop song in the ether, the sort that loudly greets you when you push open the big glass doors of a boutique clothing storeLean On, by Major Lazer, for example, with its needling and vaguely militant chorus chant by the Danish singer-songwriter Mؗand then close your eyes and imagine it sung by Rihanna; Diplo, who wrote the song, sure did. Or imagine Justin Biebers Sorry sung by Rihanna, with the breathy verses and the reedy, pleading chorus. Once you do, it will be difficult to hear Biebers puppyish original as anything other than a glorified reference track that never found its proper home. Last year, an 18-year-old Texan named Maggie Lindemann broke through with a vogueishly dark hit called Pretty Girl. As influences, she has cited people like Lana Del Rey and BANKS, and her lone-wolf image feels filtered through Lorde. But the second Lindemann opens her mouth on Pretty Girl it becomes pretty clear who her larger inspiration isshe is singing in Rihannas voice, or maybe more accurately, Rihanna Voice.
Rihanna Voice is a complicated thing. It is infinitely adaptable; Robyn Fenty herself is from Barbados, and in some interviews and behind-the-scenes videos, her Bajan accent flavors her conversation. But like many a pop star before her, she has mostly obscured her accent in her songs, ending up with a singing voice that emanates from someplace strange in its universalitya world of nearly Midwestern flat As and vocal-fry Is and Eliza Doolittle dropped Rs. A linguist with no knowledge of Rihanna might listen to Umbrella and deduce that the singer must have been born in 1980s Wisconsin, to a South Bostonian father and a Jamaican mother, and spent winters in a British charm school. Part of this signal scrambling just comes from the centrifuge of American cultural assimilationIve had to learn to adjust my accent a bit for the sake of interviews and business conversations, Rihanna once said. The vowels are the hardest part; you have to say it with the same inflection that they do. And its a subtle reminder of the cultural and racial powder kegs we step on when we talk about voice and origin: When Fenty actually dipped into full patois for her 2016 single Work, millions of confused Americans called it gibberish. But the net effect of this regional confusion on her catalog, and its influence on pop, is incalculable. As with all major pop innovations, there were a lot of creative hands involved in forging Rihanna Voice alongside Rihanna herself. There is the hook singer Ester Dean, who came up with the the chewy, neon-bright na-na toplines for songs like S&M, Whats My Name, and Rude Boy. There is the gulpy, glottal singing of Sia, whose defiantly strange reference tracks end up influencing the singers who pick her songs; Rihannas Diamonds is an example of Sia Voice seeping into the groundwater of Rihanna Voice. And the percussiveness of Rihannas vocal takesthe way each of her syllables fly out, ruthlessly flattened, alongside compressed synth and drums, so that every sound comes at you like little plastic chips shot from a cannoncomes in part from her work with producers like Stargate. Rihanna Voice has become an industry-wide idea, a creative property like the Korg synth or LinnDrum, that the quick-working line cooks of the pop industry daub onto tracks like hot sauce from squeeze bottle. Through this lens, pop radio is simply an array of interchangeable plates, all of them drizzled lightly with Rihanna Voice before serving.
Chris Martin, never the most poetic of souls, famously described Rihannas vocals after working with her on Coldplays 2012 single Princess of China: When you think of Rihannas voice, you think of this rich thing, solid like a tree trunk, he enthused, to ruthless and deserved mockery. But on this basic point, he was right: Her vocal takes have an uncanny, rounded wholeness. Listen to how she sings the oh-na-na, whats my name hook of Whats My Name; she exaggerates the what so that it becomes oo-WHAT. Theres a hint of yelp, a throat catch in that oo-WHAT, the kind of sound that usually tells us the singer is about to lose composure, or is struggling to maintain it. But the catch happens at exactly the same spot, at the same moment, in the same word, every single time. Its mesmerizing, like watching a GIF of someone bursting into laughter. It is all the things, in three syllables, that Martin went on aboutwhole, rich, solid. Who knows how many dozens of times Rihanna practiced that vocal take until she had distilled all of those competing emotionspleading and playful, weary and sensual, even a little mockinginto three goddamn syllables, looping perfectly. But she did, and you can hear basically the entire spectrum of RihannaRihanna shouting, Rihanna beckoning, Rihanna purring, Rihanna cacklingwithout her having to change much about her voice at all. No matter who borrows Rihannas voice, only she can do that.
There is something Ronnie Spector-ish about that voiceit is thin but full, sultry but boyish, unwavering and clear at every moment. You cant really hear, or imagine, either singer gulping air. That sound just seems to live untouched in their throats, and all they have to do is open their mouths to beam it out. Spector knew this about her own voice. She once said, famously: Phil [Spector] won the lottery when he met me, because I had a perfect voice. It wasnt a black voice; it wasnt a white voice. It just was a great voice. Rihannas vocal tone has something similarly liberating in it;Rihanna the person might still have to navigate the poisoned waters of American race and class, but Rihanna Voice goes where it pleases. It encapsulates the ideathat the voice of pop music will always be the voice of youth itself, bounding freely beyond the strictures of gender, race, age and genre. This is probably the taproot producers and songwriters are suckling from when they write songs in Rihanna Voice. In the airless, email-heavy world of contemporary pop, her voice is as much a frequency as anything, a fat and nicely compressed mid-range to complement the two or three swarming hook elements that the chart race requires. Rihanna Voice can be playful or sexy, as on Swedish teenager Zara Larssons So Good, or it can be sultry and dour and wolfish and lonely. It can be a boy or a girl, man or a woman, human or machine; once youve trapped that butterfly in the bottle of your Pro Tools, you can morph it to serve basically any need a pop track might have. Walking out of a grocery store the other day, I heard some Rihanna Voice bleating bloodlessly from the speakers just above the avocados. It was Bebe Rexhas I Got You, which could have been a Rihanna hit five years ago. And wouldnt you know it, Rexha has written a bunch of songs in Rihanna Voice, even some for Rihanna herself, including the hook to Eminems The Monster.
As her doppelgnger army continues its dominion over the charts, Rihanna herself has pushed in new directions. With each passing year, she lets a little more croaky, seen-it-all rock star road warrior weariness creep into her singing. On Drakes Take Care, in 2011, she sounded raspy, vulnerable, and genuinely hurt. Performing We Found Love at the Grammys in 2012, she wrestled the perfection of her recorded vocal take down into a throat with vibrating cords and glottis and everything. She was brassy, joyful. Rihanna Voice, having spent a half decade or so traveling the world, had come home. On 2016s ANTI, the floodgates opened. The album offers a vibrant cast of new Rihannasyelping Rihanna, smokers cough Rihanna, hoarse Rihanna. She yelped and shouted and let her voice crack on Love on the Brain and Higher. She nearly yodels on Consideration when she makes the leap from chest to head voice. With each catch and squeak, you can hear her hacking away at her own sound with gusto, Rihanna coming for Rihanna Voice with an ax like Jack Nicholson breaking through the bathroom door. She is both the vandal and monument. Again, there were behind-the-scenes players pitching in to this visionpre-album single Bitch Better Have My Money and Higher were both written by Bibi Bourelly, a young singer-songwriter whose desperate rock shout you can hear in her own solo material. But listening to that stylesublimated into Rihannas pop career amplifies its potency a thousandfold. This is what pop stars do for us; its why most of us implicitly accept the draconian and unfair-seeming conditions that go into creating pop songs (Rihannas songwriting camps have always sounded terrifying and exhausting to me). We crave the thrill that you only get when a dozen or so good ideas manifest themselves in a single voice. For the past 10 years, that voice has more or less been Rihannas. Now that shes gleefully shredding it apart, shell probably generate a whole new comet trail of Rihannabes. Inevitably, none of them will carry the charge, the glassy cool and subterranean heat, of the real thing.