"Rihanna Voice" has become one of the most imitated sounds in pop
Is Rihanna the Most Influential Pop Singer of the Past Decade?
Turn your ear a certain way, and you can hear her everywhere.
When people write about Robyn Rihanna Fenty’s singing, they often use words like “flat” or “thin” or “limitations”—something that suggests her voice is the secret defect hiding in her otherwise-brilliant plumage, the limp disguised by the swagger. She “doesn’t have the range,” as the deathless meme had it. It is indisputably the aspect of her art that gets the least critical attention.
And yet listen to radio, when Rihanna isn’t on it—which, granted, isn’t too often—and you will hear molecules of her vocal style swarming around everywhere. Even-toned, husky but nasal, tinged with island breezes but essentially free of regional markers—that describes a whole lot of pop songs now, by a whole lot of people. My ears perked up most recently at the beginning of Lorde’s “Green Light”: Between the the lightly taunting way Lorde clips the word “bite” and the growling dip to “I hear sounds in my mind,” Rihanna’s ambient influence creeps in, like blunt smoke curling under a closed door.
Once you realize that Rihanna is the most influential vocal stylist of pop’s last decade, it becomes almost impossible to escape her. Pick any major contemporary dance-pop song in the ether, the sort that loudly greets you when you push open the big glass doors of a boutique clothing store—“Lean On,” by Major Lazer, for example, with its needling and vaguely militant chorus chant by the Danish singer-songwriter MØ—and then close your eyes and imagine it sung by Rihanna; Diplo, who wrote the song, sure did. Or imagine Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” sung by Rihanna, with the breathy verses and the reedy, pleading chorus. Once you do, it will be difficult to hear Bieber’s puppyish original as anything other than a glorified reference track that never found its proper home.
Rihanna Voice is a complicated thing. It is infinitely adaptable; Robyn Fenty herself is from Barbados, and in some interviews and behind-the-scenes videos, her Bajan accent flavors her conversation. A linguist with no knowledge of Rihanna might listen to “Umbrella” and deduce that the singer must have been born in 1980s Wisconsin, to a South Bostonian father and a Jamaican mother, and spent winters in a British charm school. And it’s a subtle reminder of the cultural and racial powder kegs we step on when we talk about voice and origin: When Fenty actually dipped into full patois for her 2016 single “Work,” millions of confused Americans called it gibberish. But the net effect of this regional confusion on her catalog, and it’s influence on pop, is incalculable.
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