The last time most people saw Rihanna perform on television or anywhere else was at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards ceremony, where she was named Video Vanguard. A series of themed performances demonstrated that she deserved the distinction, putting the Barbadian singer-songwriter and fashion mogul’s musical versatility on display all night, transforming the Madison Square Garden stage into a dancehall club, a lightning-flecked storm cloud, and a beautiful all-white band recital. Four medleys showcased her casual excellence in singing across genres, in the process tracing her evolution from teenage sensation to dance-music icon at ease in the listless sequence of psych-rock jams, soul songs, and ballads heard on the same year’s Anti.
It’s an intense journey. Rihanna had a difficult childhood, growing up with a father whose addiction and abuse weighed heavily on her mother. A hunch that America was the ticket to a career in music was validated when Jay-Z signed the young singer to his Roc Nation imprint, having heard enough two songs into her audition. 2005’s “Pon de Replay” was our first sampling of the voice, a delicate but raspy thing blessed with a formidable vibrato and a depth of range that snuck up on us when she trotted effortlessly across the high notes in 2006’s “Tainted Love” flip “S.O.S.” and 2007’s New Order interpolation “Shut Up and Drive” and when she leaned into her low end on “Rehab.”
Rolling out seven albums in eight years, Rihanna dominated pop, embracing emerging trends, serving big-tent bops in lean years for R&B singers, and doing songs with everyone from Coldplay to Jeezy. Anti traced the growth of a devastatingly effective singles artist who got sick of the implication that she doesn’t make great albums, a lie gorgeous deep cuts like “Get It Over With” from Unapologetic ought to have dispensed with in 2012. As her catalogue grew more refined, we fell in love with her public persona and the air of unbothered cool that seemed to emanate from her every movement. Rihanna talked shit while her peers played demure