Rihanna’s back catalogue has kept her at the top of the global charts for much of this century, and her charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent have translated that star quality into a global conglomerate.
According to Forbes, Rihanna’s net worth in 2021 is estimated as $600 million. In that way, calling her iconic is pretty obvious. But how much of that musical catalogue makes her an icon for our tribe?
Ok, so none of her songs is explicitly about “the gays.” But I feel that shouldn’t stop us from seeing issues common to our gay experience in her music. Whether she is owning her ‘nappy’ hair (“cuz I’m black bitch”) or dragging up her squad, Rihanna is real and unruly enough to make us feel that she gets it.
Has there ever been a song that captures the heart of the power bottom so purely? Listen well because she is separating the doms from the pretenders in the sweetest way possible. (As super-sub anthems go, Birthday Cake is onomatopoeia-esque fun but lacks the tonal and emotional complexity on display here.) If you can’t stand the heat, just sit down and tap your feet.
What’s My Name (Rihanna)
Here Rihanna has captured a whole genre of gay romance. That heady mix of sexual chemistry and uncertain emotional intimacy. The promise of that “next ex” where one night could well extend to a few more. It’s not exactly a sad story, and certainly, the way Rihanna and Drake linger over it, the flirtation is sweet, and the connection is real.
But the genius in the song is captured in those couple bars where her voice suddenly softens, no longer fronting, to admit “every door you enter, I will let you in” – an admission shockingly real and deliciously shared.
Love The Way You Lie
A homage to fuck boys everywhere. I’d like to stop here. Actually, I have to say one more thing- how that working out for you, child?
It might seem strange to include a song about the remorse of a homicidal criminal but work with me. The reggae inflictions and yardie morality tale make this feel very Jamaican- if not Caribbean. For many black gays, this is an association we know all too well. The conflation of Jamaica the country, the Caribbean as a region, criminal violence and homophobia is familiar for our diaspora.
Many of us know that making sodomy legal doesn’t eliminate homophobic treats from the streets for queens, meaning that you need to learn the codes wherever you are. Still, this fetish of the un-reconstructed black man stalking persists. Thankfully Rihanna’s rendering in the song goes further than this. Hers is a revenge fantasy that takes on the patriarchy. Yass queen.
Where Have You Been
I have lived this song. It has all the abandon of RiRi’s best club anthems. What sets it apart is the compulsive shift in tone from that expectant energy at the start of a night out to the unhinged syncopation of scoring. It is like a coming-out story, and weekend sess rolled into one.
There have been many pretenders to the throne, but for my money, no song embodies the last lines of every episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race like this one. How do we know if we love ourselves enough to honour Mother Ru, especially in those moments that count?
This is a love song where you feel the singer is as much in love with themselves as they are with the object of their affection. It is a precious thing to find a song about love that is so specific and so versatile (it could be about friendship as much as sex.) And it’s impossible to listen without invoking her epic performance in the ‘rain’ on the UK’s X Factor stage. Or is that just me?
The video alone makes this a contender. To put this into perspective, Rihanna had just been catapulted into major stardom by Umbrella, and Rated R was the follow-up album where she started to strut her particular individuality, abandoning the R&B long hair for something much edgier.
Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl was pretty pop, but Te Amo was Vogue-Esque editorial intent to Perry’s coy, disposable ‘trying it on.’ Can’t Remember to Forget You with Shakira was to follow four years later and was teasing, ambiguous and tame by comparison. Of these three videos, Te Amo feels least like a straight man’s fantasy and is the only song speaking explicitly to same-sex love.
It’s Raining Men
I am torn. A part of me imagines RiRi and Nikki Minaj really have the kind of friendship that this song belies; hella fun, toying with the gender and racial stereotypes that the white world is used to and plain out of fucks to give.
But then I think of two huge egos looking to outmanoeuvre each other like the hot tops at the start of a party, eventually acknowledging they need different rooms. Whatever, this is a more nuanced and assertive version of the old Weather Girls classic.
Like the rest of the Navy, I wait to see what gay classics R9 might offer up. Make your suggestions in the comments below.
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