Rihanna has sold more than 12 million albums, and has had four No. 1 songs, but now her fame revolves mostly around one fight.
The singer hopes that will change on Nov. 16, when her first live performance since her Feb. 8 assault is streamed worldwide by Nokia mobile music. And when her album “Rated R” drops a week later, she believes fans will have insight into what transpired between her and ex-boyfriend Chris Brown in the wee hours of that morning.
“I can tell you that making this album was my recovery. It’s the way I vented and expressed myself,” a confident Rihanna said in our interview. “The minute I decided to leave the house again, I called up (Roc Nation A&R executive) Jay Brown and said ‘I want to do music, I want to go back in the studio,’ and we just did that. We started collecting songs and sounds and putting producers together, figuring out who we want to work with to develop new sounds.”
That decision to jump back into the music game was preceded by decisions beyond Rihanna’s control. Almost immediately after the assault, an unidentified person leaked a photograph of Rihanna’s bloodied face. Cue the paparazzi; cue the rabid public interest in Rihanna’s personal life.
“I felt like I went to sleep as Rihanna and woke up as Britney Spears,” Rihanna recently told Glamour. So how’d she make the call that it was finally time to leave the house again?
“I was getting cabin fever. I kind of hid in the house and didn’t want to be around people,” Rihanna said. “One night I just said, ‘I want to do the most ridiculous thing and go to a nightclub.’ I went to the most hopping nightclub for that night, and I felt what it was like. It was kind of weird being around people for the first time in like a month.”
Making the albumJust about a month after the assault, Rihanna was at work on “Rated R,” which will be available in stores and via Nokia mobile music on Nov. 23. “I started working on it in the beginning of March and pretty much until now,” Rihanna said.
The songs are more than a recovery aid for the singer, they're a reflection of what’s really been going on behind the images that have made their way into the press. “It’s a really fearless album,” she said. “A lot of people are saying things like, it’s dark, but it’s a very honest album and I made it in a very truthful way. I let my guard down and telling my story and being a little more vulnerable and expressing myself. I really vented in my music. I go through a lot of different music and moods in the album. You definitely will learn a lot about what’s going through my head.”
Being a role model“I never asked to be a role model” is a common cry heard from celebrities who’ve been through scandals, but it’s not one you’re likely to hear from Rihanna. Her take on the burden of having the world watching her every move is profoundly mature for a woman who’s just 21 years old, and incredibly modest for someone whose very first break in the business came by way of Jay-Z and a Def Jam contract.
In an interview on “Good Morning America” Thursday, Rihanna said she was ashamed that she returned to Brown after the attack, saying “that’s embarrassing — that’s the type of person that I fell in love with. So far in love, so unconditional, that I went back.”
She also told "GMA" that she realizes going back is a normal reaction, saying, “It’s completely normal to go back. You start lying to yourself. I’ll say that to any young girl who is going through domestic violence: ‘Don’t react off of love.”’
“After being such an influential person in the music industry, or entertainment period, (being a role model) definitely comes with that,” Rihanna told msnbc.com. “People start to put you on a pedestal and you have to be perfect and they watch every second of what you do, including young girls who are looking to see what you’re doing ... They need guidance. There are things they can’t talk to their mom about, so they’re looking at you like, ‘What should I do?’ It happens by default but it’s also a gift that you can do what you love and do it well and still help young girls.”
Rihanna presents this realization the way many would announce that they picked up a gift for a co-worker’s birthday — glad to do it, but it ain’t headline news. But it's obvious she’s thought deeply about what happened in February, and about the real scope of her influence.
“You don’t know the purpose of this,” she said, talking about her music, the assault, or maybe both. “People think it’s all about singing and having a successful career, but behind it all you’re also an idol to young women and young boys.”
A song about photographsFrom Oprah Winfrey, who dedicated a show to the “Rihannas of the world,” to countless blogs and magazines, there’s been a tremendous amount support shown for Rihanna. She might have kept quiet publicly, but she’s heard what people are saying.
“I have to say in the past six months or so, I’ve been paying attention,” she said. “I just kind of see things differently now. I know how people think, what their perception is of me, and it’s weird that even the bad comments teach you all kinds of things.”
Asking a recording artist to choose their favorite track off an album is like asking a parent to choose their favorite child, and “Rated R” is no exception. But for right now, Rihanna’s choice is a track that seems to say everything she hasn’t been able to in the last nine months.
“It’s called ‘Photographs,’” she says. “It’s about a breakup, and the only thing you have to show for the relationship is some pictures.”
Courtney Hazlett delivers the Scoop Monday through Friday on msnbc.com. Follow Scoop on Twitter @courtneyatmsnbc