Rihanna: Out for revenge

Back from a personal trauma that left her literally in the gutter, the R&B star has a new album, a UK tour and a role in a blockbuster movie

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"; the tiny island nation even celebrated "Rihanna Day" in 2008. This week, her new single "We Found Love" (featuring Calvin Harris), premiered on Capital Radio. Her sixth, inevitably bestselling, LP 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 – easily famous enough to be known by just the 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. Rihanna was 20, Brown 19; she had confronted him about a text message from another woman. He eventually left her alone on a Los Angeles pavement with, as leaked police photographs later showed, her face bloodied and bruised. The incident was a pop-cultural and personal watershed: domestic violence topped the news agenda, while Rihanna herself withdrew for a year, then re-emerged with a defiant, sexually charged new image – and an album of songs implicitly inspired by her experience.

"I've put everything I've wanted to say for the past eight months into my music," she said of the record, Rated R. One track, "Russian Roulette", is about a near-death experience at the hands of a brutal lover; another, "G4L", is a vicious female revenge fantasy. 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. They can never smell how beautiful a rose is until they get pricked by a thorn".

Rihanna was born in February 1988 in the parish of Saint Michael, on the south-west side of Barbados, to an Afro-Guyanese mother and a Bajan-Irish father. Her parents' marriage was troubled, occasionally abusive, and over by the time she was 14. Rihanna herself had developed inexplicable headaches, which miraculously cleared up when her father, Ronald, left the family's three-bedroom bungalow. Ronald had problems with drugs and alcohol, and his daughter has since explained (though not excused) his violent tendencies: he was physically abused by his stepfather as a child, and, she says, resented women because his own mother never protected him.

Rihanna's lighter-than-average skin supposedly caused her grief at school, where she was harassed by other students. But at 15 she won a beauty pageant, and it's clear why: interviewers and friends describe being mesmerised by her eyes, while her legs were insured by Gillette for $1m. She always loved singing, but was inspired to pursue a career in pop after seeing Destiny's Child – Beyoncé's former band – on television. With two schoolfriends, she started her own vocal group; and when, in 2003, she met the producer Evan Rogers through his Bajan-born wife, the trio auditioned for him with a Destiny's Child song. However, said Rogers later, "The minute Rihanna walked into the room, it was like the other two girls didn't exist."

Soon she was flying back and forth with her mother to Rogers' home in Connecticut, where the pair produced a demo EP including the track that would become her first hit single, "Pon de Replay". 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. Its lead single was the aforementioned "Pon de Replay", a Caribbean-inflected dancehall-pop track about boogieing in nightclubs. 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. Reviewers once complained that Rihanna's Caribbean charm was smothered by generic R&B production. 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.

In the UK, a line from "S&M" – "Sticks and stones may break my bones/But chains and whips excite me" – was edited from the radio version. In the controversial video for another single, "Man Down", she played a woman who kills a man after he rapes her. Her crotch-thrusting performance during the final episode of last year's The X Factor brought out many a viewer's inner Mary Whitehouse, eliciting numerous complaints to ITV. 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, which the artist was obliged to defend as representing not violence, but "strength and power". Her hair is ever changing and endlessly newsworthy: black, red, short, long, straight, curly, shaved back and sides, pineapple-blond bonce. Meanwhile, she has been one of the more conspicuous victims of internet intrusion. Cruelly soon after the Lamborghini 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.

A life in brief

Born: Robyn Rihanna Fenty, 20 February 1988, Barbados.

Family: Her parents are Monica Braithwaite and Ronald Fenty. She has two younger brothers and three half-siblings.

Education: Attended school in Barbados before leaving education at 16 and moving to the US.

Career: Signed with Def Jam in 2005. First album, Music of the Sun, in 2005. It was her third release, 2007's Good Girl Gone Bad, that was her breakthrough. Released two further No 1 albums, Rated R and Loud.

She says: "I want to be the black Madonna."

They say: "A bone fide pop phenomenon." Kanye West

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