Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born on February 20, 1988, but Rihanna as we know her today arrived exactly 10 years ago, on March 29, 2007. That was the day “Umbrella” stormed and cymbal-crashed into the world, paving the way for Rihanna’s domination as the imminent pop threat of the late ’00s.
When Jay Z yells, “Take 3: Action!” at the onset of “Umbrella,” he’s hinting that the third time’s the charm, and sure enough, Rihanna was at a make-or-break moment in her career by the time her third album, Good Girl Gone Bad, rolled around. She had turned heads with her 2005 debut, Music of the Sun, and its swift follow-up, 2006’s A Girl Like Me, but was still considered a middle-tier pop star with an indistinct musical personality. Who was Rihanna, exactly? No one really knew until “Umbrella.”
Rihanna had already topped the Hot 100 with “SOS” in 2006, but “Umbrella” completely eclipsed that. “This was just so much more massive,” says Fred Bronson, a Billboard contributor who, in 2007, wrote the weekly “Chart Beat” column. “‘SOS’ stayed three weeks at No. 1 and it was double platinum. ‘Umbrella’ went seven weeks at No. 1 and six times platinum. It was way beyond anything she had done at that point.” Not only that, but it introduced us to Rihanna the superstar: the one with 58 entries on the Hot 100 to her name. “If she had never had another No. 1, we probably wouldn’t be talking about her today,” says Bronson. “But ‘Umbrella’ showed she could do it again, and then she did it again and again and again and again and again.”
CRAFTING ‘THE PERFECT STORM’
Like many a pop star’s signature song, “Umbrella” wasn’t written with Rihanna in mind; it just happened to be exactly what she needed at exactly the right time. It was similarly serendipitous for writer-producers Terius “The-Dream” Nash and Tricky Stewart, the duo who crafted that gleaming combination of mammoth drums, crashing cymbals, and a walloping hip-hop backbeat. They, too, were looking for their breakout hit, and as they told MTV News in 2007, “Umbrella” was “the perfect storm” of coincidences that gave them — and Rihanna — what they needed.
Together with vocal producer Kuk Harrell, Stewart and Nash wrote the song and completed the demo at a breakneck speed, but it took a while to find the right artist for it. Britney Spears’s team passed on it first, claiming she already had enough material for her next album. Then it was offered to Mary J. Blige, but not before it landed in the hopeful hands of Island Def Jam CEO L.A. Reid. He wanted it for Rihanna, but Nash and Stewart were reluctant to give the song to someone who wasn’t an established star at the time, they said in John Seabrook's The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. That changed as soon as they heard Rihanna sing the “Umbrella” hook: “When she recorded the ‘ellas,’” Stewart said, “you knew your life was about to change.”
Jay Z, the then-president of Def Jam, knew it too. He told MTV News in 2007, “‘Umbrella' was a song that, the minute you heard it, you know what it was gonna be — it was a smash.” Not only that, but he knew it was ideal for Rihanna, who was desperate to carve out her place in pop music. While promoting Good Girl Gone Bad that summer, the then-19-year-old tellingly named Madonna as her role model, indicating that she didn’t just want to prove she had staying power — she was gunning for “icon” status. “The other stuff I did was easy breezy — a lot of [it] I felt was stuff that any artist could have done,” she told Paper magazine in July 2007. “This one only a certain artist can do ... I want to be the black Madonna.”
‘UMBRELLA’ DEFINES SUMMER ’07
Once “Umbrella” made its way to the airwaves and onto people’s iPods, it stuck. The ubiquitous hit — which went on to earn Rih her first Grammy and her first VMA — shattered download records and even crashed iTunes. It lived on the charts for an entire year, ascending to the top of the Hot 100 just after Memorial Day and holding the No. 1 spot for seven consecutive weeks (it was unseated in July by “Hey There Delilah” by The Plain White T's). “Nothing else came close that summer in terms of weeks at No. 1,” says Bronson. “No question that that song ruled the summer of ’07.”
Bronson attributes the success of “Umbrella” to its strategic summertime release, its unique title (at least, in the world of pop songs), and “one of the best hooks I’ve ever heard,” which became instantly iconic. As Seabrook put it in his book, “Eleven rhythmic syllables, ‘umbrella-ella-ella-eh-eh-eh,’ did what the two previous albums together had not done: they defined Rihanna as an artist.” Just consider her unconventional vocal delivery: Rihanna toyed with the word “umbrella” in a way that never doomed it to melisma, but instead made it sound icy, detached, and somehow still seductive. She took a sentimental song about undying devotion and managed to make it sound totally unsentimental, scoring her biggest hit in the process.
BAD GIRLS TAKE RISKS
“Umbrella” represented a sonic evolution for Rihanna, but it also coincided with a whole new look: one that found her shedding her wholesome, island-girl image and opting for sexier styles. “Edgy” became her new norm — she cut her hair into an asymmetrical bob and began performing in leather and latex dresses alluding to bondage.
No part of this was coincidental. She told Billboard in June 2007, “My new look is purposely adult. I did what felt natural.” It was also, she added, simply part of her Good Girl Gone Bad mission statement. “I wanted to show growth as a person and artist. But for me, ‘bad girl’ does not mean ‘wild girl.’ It's more about taking chances, trying new things — visually and musically.”
To put it more succinctly, “I’m not the innocent Rihanna anymore,” she told MTV News on the set of her “Umbrella” video in May 2007. “I'm taking a lot more risks and chances. I felt when I cut my hair, it showed people I'm not trying to look or be anybody else.”
A SILVER-PAINTED STAR IS BORN
The launchpad for that visual transformation was the “Umbrella” music video, which premiered on April 26, 2007. Director Chris Applebaum, who also helmed the “SOS” video, told MTV News that Rihanna was “starting to mature and wanting to break out” with “SOS.” That propelled her to continue “pushing boundaries” with “Umbrella,” which he says couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
“She hadn’t really turned into a big worldwide superstar yet, so she wasn’t self-conscious,” Applebaum explained. “She didn’t have this eye on her that she has now, where your behavior and the statements that you make and the things that you do when you’re a superstar are different than the things that you do beforehand. I think that was Rihanna at a really honest moment. Kind of a little bit scared, a little bit afraid of what people were going to think about her. But also, I think, feeling pretty convinced. She had a small group of people around her that were all like, ‘Do it! Go for it! This is your moment, take advantage of it!’”
That’s exactly what she did. Between the rainstorm of sparks, the stunning choreography, and the showstopping silver body paint, the “Umbrella” video showed off Rihanna’s class, brass, and swagger. Most importantly, though, it defined who she was as an artist.
“There’s something really authentic and genuine about a person who stands up for the first time and says, ‘This is who I am,’” Applebaum says. “And that was a moment in her life that we were able to capture. I feel like that was really what made it special.”
Ten years later, “Umbrella” is still special because it marks a major turning point in Rihanna's career. The past decade has given us “Disturbia,” “S&M,” We Found Love,” “Diamonds,” “Work,” and dozens more hits, and the catalyst for it all was “Umbrella”: the song that gave us a superstar.