Rihanna — “Disturbia”

Released: 7.22.08

Peak: #1

For fans of fungible R&B starlets, late ’00s pop raises a big question: Why Rihanna? Much of the explanation for her success lay behind the industry curtain, where the heavyweights in her corner ensured financial and promotional backing. But Ri was also uniquely suited for the contemporary popscape. While conventional cult favorites like Ciara and Cassie and Amerie were safer candidates for second-tier Beyoncedom, the dull-edged blade of Rihanna’s voice, which snags on melodies rather than slicing them, was the perfect instrument to embody the moment’s reigning sensibility: a violent monotony that passed as pleasure (the  joyless thump of “I Kissed a Girl” pounding away all semblance of flirtatiousness) or, worse, passion (the insidious Ryan Tedder pricking Leona Lewis for “Bleeding Love” and biting  Mike Chapman for Jordin Sparks’ “Battlefield”).

This sonically distinctive yet emotionally indistinct vocal presence brought a mournful undertow to “Umbrella” without swamping it in virtuosity or personality. Yet on subsequent hits Rihanna combined anonymity with imitation — “Don’t Stop the Music” never earned its Manu-via-Michael theft, and Ri’s “please” and offhand chuckle on “Take a Bow” just made me wonder what Beyonce could have made of its “You’re so ugly when you cry” and warning about sprinklers. Only with “Disturbia,” a well-realized dystopian fantasia about a woman overreacting to car trouble, did Rihanna’s transformation from lightweight Caribbean cutie—Jay’s “Little Miss Sunshine”—into haunted softcore dominatrix began in earnest.

The herky-jerk Marilyn Manson visuals of the “Disturbia” video may have contributed to the growth of Rihanna’s new persona even more than the inexorable stagger of Brian Kennedy’s simple boom-bap or Chris Brown’s most eloquent lyric. (“Bum bum bee dum bum bum bee dum bum” is meaningless and all that’s true.) But Rihanna’s vocals, autotuned to an ominous wobble, embody the song’s description of a woman made a monster by her surroundings. It’s that voice that’s the strangest part of “Disturbia”—except maybe for the fact that her then-current boyfriend lifted the title from her former boyfriend’s movie.

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