When people talk about Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in 20 years, its story will probably have been embellished in all sorts of ways.
“Everybody has their side of it, because everybody was under a different amount of pressure to deliver that song to Rihanna,” producer Tricky Stewart told MTV News of the song up for Record of the Year at this year’s Grammy Awards . “So all the stories are gonna be different, because everybody has their own perspective.”
How could they not?
Released in late March 2007, “Umbrella” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart by May, rocketing 40 spots in one week to land at #1 and staying there for seven straight weeks.
The song broke the iTunes music store’s record for biggest debut, besting the previous mark set by Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.”
The accompanying Chris Applebaum-directed video — complete with a sexy, slithery, silver-painted Rihanna — launched the singer into cover-girl status, as she graced the pages of Seventeen, Complex and Giant magazines, among others. Not to mention that it landed her two VMA Moonmen .
So when the track’s trio of participants look back on the record that turned Rih Rih from star to superstar, revitalized Stewart’s career and introduced the world to the talents of songwriter The-Dream, they’ll swear it leaped 60 spots to #1. That it made iTunes crash because it was so popular. (Insert optional number of exclamation points for dramatic effect.)
But the song almost didn’t even make it to Rihanna.
According to Stewart, “Umbrella” was composed a year ago with Britney Spears in mind. He had worked with the troubled pop star on her 2003 album, In The Zone. But her camp told Stewart that they already had several tracks lined up for the new album, which they were already struggling to get Spears to record.
“Her current state was a little bizarre, you know?” Stewart said. “It wasn’t meant to be.”
Since it was Grammy season, Stewart said he and Dream set their sights on getting the record to Mary J. Blige , who was nominated for eight awards. Problem was, the same day they also sent the track to L.A. Reid, CEO of Island Def Jam, Rihanna’s label.
“In a two-day period, we were in the bidding war of our lives,” Stewart explained, laughing. “Between Mary J. Blige’s camp, and Karen Kwak [Island Def Jam’s executive VP of A&R] and L.A. Reid’s camp.”
Blige, however, didn’t get the chance to hear the song right away, because she was tied up with Grammy obligations. And as an established star, she had to sign off on the record before her reps could accept it. Rihanna’s label execs, on the other hand, were relentless in their pursuit of the record for the burgeoning star.
“At the time, if you heard Mary’s name and you heard Rihanna’s name, you’d want to hold out,” Stewart said. “Mary’s coming off ‘Be Without You'; she’s nominated for all these Grammys, the whole thing. So the plan with us, really, was to hold the record to get a response from Mary. By the time L.A. Reid and his team got done beating us up, we just couldn’t say no. They’re calling every 20 minutes for the entire Grammy weekend. Every time we see him, everywhere we see him, they were just applying all kinds of pressure.”
Two days after “Umbrella” was created, Rihanna was in a Los Angeles studio laying down her vocals. Stewart said he was still unsure whether Rihanna was the right choice for the song, but when the singer nailed the now famous “ella” refrain, he knew they were all onto something.
“When she recorded the ‘ellas,’ you knew it was about to be the jump-off,” he said, “and your life was about to change if you had anything to do with that record.”
That was before Jay-Z added his guest verse, then added a different verse, according to Stewart.
“There was actually another version before that one that he did,” Stewart said. “And the first one was perfect. And right before they were about to press it up, he went and changed his verse. And nobody even knew he changed his verse. … At the time when he did, I didn’t really understand. But now, when I go back every once in a while and listen to the old rap, what he wrote [instead] makes so much better sense. And from a songwriter’s standpoint, he jut really made it more about the song, with the metaphors about umbrellas and about the weather versus what he had before.”
Since the record broke, Rihanna’s gone on to a greater level of fame, Dream has debuted on his own with hits “Shawty Is a 10″ and “Falsetto,” and Stewart has been in the studio with Celine Dion, Janet Jackson and Usher.
“It’s crazy, just being a part of that,” Stewart said. “I’ve seen a lot of things in my time in the music business, but to see a record take off like that, it’s just amazing.”
“It was the perfect storm,” he added. “I think the video was amazing. We won Monster Single of the Year for the video [at the VMAs]. It won all the awards it was supposed to win, from that standpoint. But at the same time, now the Grammys are coming up, and now the songwriters and the producers and the engineers are gonna get acknowledged. It was the perfect situation, you know? Everybody has their one record and their one situation. There are a lot of people that are talented, but when you get that one it’s different, it sets you up.”
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