Saturday profile: Rihanna

Back from a personal trauma that left her bloodied and bruised, the R&B star has a new album and tour, says Tim Walker

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The Independent Online

Rihanna has had more US No 1 singles than Beyoncé and Lady Gaga combined. In the UK, her 2007 hit "Umbrella" spent 10 weeks at the top. In Barbados, where she grew up, she was made "official ambassador of youth and culture";. This week, her new single "We Found Love" (featuring Calvin Harris), premiered on Capital Radio. Her sixth, inevitably bestselling, album comes out in November, shortly after a week of massive UK stadium shows. Next year, she makes her blockbuster movie debut in Battleship, a mega-budget adaptation of the popular family board game. (No, seriously.) Robyn Rihanna Fenty – famous enough to be known by just one name – is an entertainment-industry aircraft carrier: vast, imposing, weaponised.

And yet, beyond the music business, she is most famous for a deeply private moment. The night before the 2009 Grammy Awards, at which she was due to perform, her then-boyfriend Chris Brown physically assaulted her in the front seat of his rented Lamborghini. The incident was a pop-cultural and personal watershed.Rihanna withdrew for a year, then re-emerged with a defiant, sexually charged new image – and an album of songs implicitly inspired by her experience.

She has since released the self-explanatory "S&M", and discussed in interviews how much she likes to be spanked and tied up during sex. She linked these predilections to the violence in her life, telling one journalist that she was "a bit of a masochist ... It's not something I'm proud of ... I think it's common for people who witness abuse in their household."

Rihanna was born in 1988 in Barbados. At 15 she won a beauty pageant. She always loved singing, but was inspired to pursue a career in pop after seeing Destiny's Child – Beyoncé's former band – on television.

Aged 16, she moved to the US, and was signed to Def Jam records after auditioning for the label's then-CEO, Jay-Z. "She was obviously nervous," Jay-Z told Rolling Stone. "Now she has a big personality, but I didn't get that in the meeting. What I did get was her eyes, this determination. She was fierce. I knew she was a star."

She remains a Jay-Z protégée, and in 2010 left her management company to join her mentor's new firm, Roc Nation. With his patronage she has been able to collaborate with some of the world's biggest hip-hop artists: Kanye West, Eminem, Drake. As a result, Rihanna began her career being incessantly compared to Beyoncé: the pair had Jay-Z (who is married to the latter) in common, and her critics described her as a Beyoncé replica, deliberately cloned by the mogul. Until her post-Brown transformation, that is.

Rihanna's first album, Music of the Sun, was released in 2005, when she was 17. Her second, A Girl Like Me, featured her first US No 1 single, "SOS", a relatively tame number about teenage obsession. "Umbrella", from 2007's Good Girl Gone Bad, was a straight-up love song. "Rehab", too, was a traditional ballad about a broken relationship, with the gentlest of modern metaphorical twists. With Rated R, however, Rihanna's songs suddenly became overtly sexualised. Last year's Loud opened with "S&M" and followed it with "What's My Name", a lyric filled with barely concealed references to intercourse. Her new "bad girl" attitude brought her greater critical success. But it also brought another kind of criticism: she was no longer compared to Beyoncé; instead she was contrasted with her, and accused of being an inferior role model.

Even in Barbados, her "skimpy clothing" has earned her disapproving commentary. Now, her persona is part of the political debate about the sexualisation of children.

How much was any of this Rihanna's choice? She is, after all, the product of a major label. (Def Jam is owned by Universal, which is also producing Battleship.) The songs on Loud were generated in a two-week writers' camp: about 50 songwriters and producers were paid to descend on LA's most upmarket recording studios for a fortnight to brainstorm. They emerged with 200 tracks, of which the star and her team picked their favourite 11.

Moreover, is her cultural perception her responsibility? Is she really obliged to be a role model at all? "I definitely want to help and teach little girls whenever I can," she told Vogue in April. "But then there is a character that I have to play in my videos to tell stories. And a lot of the parts that I play aren't necessarily what I stand for in real life. But it's hard to differentiate that sometimes."

Rihanna is arguably just the Stones to Beyoncé's Beatles. Thus her every creative choice is the subject of minute fascination. Among her tattoos, for example, is an image of a handgun. Meanwhile, she has been one of the more conspicuous victims of internet intrusion. Cruelly soon after the assault incident in 2009, a series of naked cameraphone pictures ended up online.

And then there were the shocking police photographs of her face following Brown's assault, leaked to the website TMZ.com. The episode doubtless still colours her life, but as for her career, it seems only to have made her stronger.

Life in brief

Born

Robyn Rihanna Fenty, 20 February 1988, Saint Michael, Barbados.

Family

Her parents are Monica Braithwaite, a retired accountant, and Ronald Fenty, a warehouse superviser. She has two younger brothers and three half-siblings.

Education

Attended Charles F Broome Memorial primary school and the Combermere School in Barbados before leaving education at 16 and moving to the US to pursue her music career.

Career

Signed with Def Jam Records in 2005 after auditioning for then-label head Jay-Z. Released her first album, Music Of The Sun, in 2005. Although she enjoyed decent sales, it was her third release, 2007's Good Girl Gone Bad, that was her big breakthrough. Released two further No 1 albums, selling more than 20 million records and winning four Grammy awards.

She says

"I want to be the black Madonna."

They say

"A bone fide pop phenomenon." Kanye West

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