Rihanna feat. Jay-Z — “Umbrella”

Released: 3.29.07

Peak: #1

In 2007, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart became an overnight sensation, a mere eight years after he started crafting hits. Until I started researching the decade, I’d no idea Tricky was behind two of my near-forgotten turn-of-the-century favorites–JT Money’s crazed “Who Dat” and Mya’s line-drawing “Case of the Ex (Whatcha Gonna Do)”–or that he discovered Blu Cantrell. After that, though, excepting Britney’s “Me Against the Music,” his ’00s were fallow.

“Umbrella” was different. Everybody loved “Umbrella.” Except maybe for everybody who hated “Umbrella.” But even they only hated “Umbrella” because everyone loved “Umbrella.” There was something mediated if not premeditated about expressing that love, almost an act of willed consensus. Unnerved by the fragmentation of the pop market, everyone was thrilled to display this mass affection. This was the first year I began to notice a curious new phenomenon, the trend piece that demanded to know the “song of the summer.” There had always been such a song in the past, these stories told us. But these songs-of-the summer were usually recognized as such after the fact; now pundits demanded answers up front. Just beneath the surface lurked a panicked fear that this might be the first song-less summer.

You can hear our societal fear of atomization in the music of “Umbrella”: That open hi-hat on the one, and the tumble of funk that follows, holding together the ominous, intricate synth strings, seeming to swirl far underneath and yet still miles above the distorted bass rumble. Not only did Tricky and his songwriting partner Terius Nash (soon to be known as The-Dream) forever appended an echoed chant of nonsense syllables to an everyday word. they shamelessly filled that ella-ella-eh-eh-sized hole in our collective soul.

The lyric summons up memories of that other great pop celebration of umbrella-sharing, “Bus Stop,” which also celebrates long-term devotion with a minor-key tune. Sharing an umbrella is an unavoidably intimate act–it usually results in one person or both getting wet–yet this one was wide enough for the pop world. That’s why Jay-Z’s rap isn’t just unnecessary; it’s misleading, making it sound as though Rihanna is singing to him alone. Clearly, she’s singing to all of us.

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  • Chris Molanphy  On January 4, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    You make a defensible point at the end there about the superfluousness of Jigga’s rap, but I have confess that I love it: It makes what could be a positively minimalist single *massive*. It’s like a preview of the towering, soaring chorus — a classic hype-man move that gets you pumped a minute before the song really swells to stadium-size.

    When I compiled my Best-of-’00s list, I put “Umbrella” right behind “Crazy in Love” — not only for the obvious gossip-rag fun of that juxtaposition, but partially because Jay’s opening rap is so effective in both, a classic red-carpet rollout for Her Majesty.

  • usefulnoise  On January 5, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    Fair enough, though the “Crazy in Love” rap leaves this in the dust–maybe because there Jay sounds like he’s been challenged to keep up with B’s intensity. The “Umbrella” intro sounds to me a little more like, “We’re not sure how big a star Ri is yet, so we’d better give her a big intro.”

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