Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda Been a Single: From the Discography of Rihanna
H-eh-eh-eh-y, it’s that time again! Today, lets take a tour — you and I together — back through Rihanna’s many, many, many albums and singles and discuss the forgotten tunes that never got their time to shine (bright like a diamond).
In writing similar features about the discographies of Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and Beyoncé, I found that each artist’s body of work presented a unique set of issues. Gaga left a lot of great potential smashes to rot, Britney’s catalog is large and divisive, and Beyoncé, despite releasing a ton of singles per album, has made the idea of singles somewhat irrelevant with surprise releases and videos-for-every-song tactics. Turns out, doing this for Rihanna presented my biggest challenge yet.
Here’s the thing: Bad Gal’s album and single release schedule is nothing short of prolific; no other modern pop musician’s output can compare. In eight years, she released seven albums (plus one major re-release, which essentially brings the total to eight albums in eight years). And releasing one album per year didn’t slow an epic barrage of singles. She only released two from Music of the Sun, but she soon ratcheted things up and released four from A Girl Like Me, eight (including a feature on a Maroon 5 track) from Good Girl Gone Bad/GGGB: Reloaded, six from Rated R, seven from Loud, six from Talk That Talk, and another seven from Unapologetic. (That doesn’t even take into account her numerous massive guest features on songs like Eminem’s “The Monster” or T.I.‘s “Live Your Life.” She also released three singles in 2015 already, and there’s no album in sight.) In short: Rihanna loves releasing singles even more than she loves clapping back on Twitter.
Historically, Rihanna has been more of a “singles artist” than an “album artist,” meaning that her strength has been in putting out incredible (and incredibly popular, record-breaking) singles and mediocre-to-good albums with too much obvious padding. (And the public noticed: she didn’t score her first No. 1 album until 2012’s Unapologetic.) There were other good songs on her albums, sure, but for the most part, the good songs were released and the rest were forgotten. Given her exhaustive release schedule, it was occasionally difficult to find hidden gems from some eras. Despite these hardships, I was successful in finding at least one song per album that Rih and her team passed over. And in the end, this exercise gave me a greater appreciation of her work overall. Now, you’ve waited your turn, so shall we begin?
Shoulda-Been Singles From Music of the Sun (2005)
For my money, Rihanna’s debut album coulda, shoulda, woulda been “Pon de Replay” sequenced 13 times in a row. And it’s not just that Music of the Sun is mostly filler; it’s also that “Pon de Replay” is that good. As it was released, there isn’t a ton here that begs extra attention. Rihanna released only two singles from the album, so she (and/or her label) must have agreed. The only other song that stands out from the generic reggae-lite non-bops that litter Music is “Let Me,” which sounds like a Rihanna song slightly ahead of its time. It also sounds like an Amerie song, which, hey, I’m not complaining.
Shoulda-Been Singles From A Girl Like Me (2006)
“Kisses Don’t Lie”
Like Music of the Sun, A Girl Like Me functions mostly as a launching pad for the singles Rihanna actually did release, “SOS” being the most notable of the bunch. So like with Music of the Sun, there isn’t much of an argument to be made for the remaining A Girl Like Me songs getting the single treatment. “Kisses Don’t Lie” is the best of the bunch, though. It’s a somewhat rough-edged reggaeton ditty that very easily gets stuck in one’s head.
Shoulda-Been Singles From Good Girl Gone Bad (2007)
“Sell Me Candy”
Good Girl Gone Bad is the first Rihanna album that deserves to be called an album and not just a collection of crumpled garbage propping up one or two great singles. The fact that Good Girl remains Rihanna’s biggest selling album is testament to that fact. It contains several of her biggest hits, including the eternal “Umbrella.” Then the re-release brought us “Take a Bow” and “Disturbia.” All three of those singles hit No. 1, and every other single peaked within the Top 20 (two of them reached the Top 10). It remains her strongest era, chart performance-wise. And guess what? Even though seven total singles (not counting “If I Never See Your Face Again,” which belongs to Maroon 5) were released, there are still several above-average songs for which to stan. “Breakin’ Dishes”? “Push Up on Me”? “Lemme Get That”? All good songs! My first vote for Shoulda-Been a Single, though, goes to “Sell Me Candy.” It is one of the greatest Song of the Summer contenders that was never even a contender. It just oozes summer sensuality. Look at Demi Lovato in 2015 trying so hard to get on this tip. “Sell Me Candy” is proof that it just comes naturally to some.
“Cry” was a bonus track featured on several international editions of Good Girl, continuing the deplorable trend of artists tossing off great material for the sake of label games, making it harder for fans to find and hear. Considering it is one of Rihanna’s best ballads, it’s a shame that it never saw a proper release (even just as an album track) in the U.S. But, hey, we live in the age of YouTube and one-click downloads, so these kinds of things are easy to find should you choose to look. Thank God for that. “Cry” builds on the best parts of “Unfaithful,” the first ballad Rih ever put out as a single. That she would go on to have some incredible successes with her ballads — “Take a Bow” and “Stay,” for example — only demonstrates that people are here for vulnerable, heartfelt Rih.
Shoulda-Been Singles From Rated R (2009)
Rated R, Rihanna’s moodiest record (and still her most sonically cohesive), was the first she released after her then-boyfriend Chris Brown violently assaulted her in a car in February 2009. The darkness of the album reflects the incident, though its most successful singles made no attempt, subtle or explicit, to reference it. (A cynic might say they used the assault as marketing and nothing more.) “G4L,” which stands for “Gangsta 4 Life,” is the best example of a song from the album that balances Bad Gal’s new dark image with the gritty urban pop that made “Hard” and “Rude Boy” successful. If “Russian Roulette” is the beating heart of Rated R, “G4L” is its sexy façade, an invitation to enter the madhouse and behold its horrors… and its humanity. (Also important: this song birthed the Rihanna Navy nickname!)
“Stupid in Love”
This is one of several Rated R songs that can be interpreted as commentary on Rihanna’s relationship with Chris Brown. (Another song that fits this criterion is the Justin Timberlake-penned “Cold Case Love,” which one of the album’s best moments. At 6+ minutes, however, it would not have worked well as a single.) I suppose that could have helped fuel interest in the track had it been released. Mostly, I think it’s just a cute, modern, and dark take on doo-wop that is something of an anomaly in Rih’s overall catalog.
Shoulda-Been Singles From Loud (2010)
Loud is Rihanna’s most concise album — and also one of her most cohesive. At just 11 tracks, seven of which were officially released, there is not much left to consider. (One of those 11 tracks is a reworking of “Love the Way You Lie,” her previously-released collaboration with Eminem. So that counts as another single.) It comes down to choosing one of two songs (“Skin” is a great song, but not a single): “Fading” and “Complicated.” Though I like “Complicated” and feel it is maybe more representative of the album, my vote goes to “Fading.” It would have felt like a breath of fresh air after the (amazing) aural assault of “Only Girl (In the World),” “What’s My Name,” and “S&M.” Potentially unpopular opinion: This is Rihanna’s “Irreplaceable.”
Shoulda-Been Singles From Talk That Talk (2011)
“Drunk on Love”
Following Good Girl, Rated R, and Loud — three albums that saw Rihanna transcend her earlier rut of releasing filler-filled records with (at most) a handful of classic jams — our Bad Gal backtracked and returned to peddling undercooked morsels that existed solely to entice people to spend $10 – $15 for the whole shebang instead of just $0.99 for the hit they actually wanted. In a way, it’s disappointing. On the other hand, the good songs from these most recent two albums are among her best ever. The biggest hit of Rihanna’s career, “We Found Love,” is featured on Talk That Talk. And there are several other highlights, most of which were rightfully released as singles. One glaring exception is “Drunk on Love,” which expertly samples The xx’s “Intro” and features a soaring, melancholic vocal that is among Rih’s best. It’s still one of the most mature and seductive songs she’s ever released.
Shoulda-Been Singles From Unapologetic (2012)
“Half of Me”
Seven singles were taken from Unapologetic, but you probably only remember “Diamonds,” “Stay,” and “Pour It Up.” I was surprised to learn that “Jump,” one of my choices for this feature, actually was released as a single; I have no recollection of that happening. It is perhaps because a video was never filmed, the song never really promoted. “Half of Me” is a bonus track featured on the deluxe edition of the album (side note: can we stop with deluxe editions, please?), which is unfair because it deserves so much more than that lesser status. The song is essentially about Rihanna’s struggle with the public’s perception and understanding of her as a human (not just a pop star), that people only see a fraction of of her and assume that’s all there is. The price of fame and all that. It is rumored that the “You saw me on the television” line is a reference to her infamous Oprah interview, in which she discussed her complicated feelings for Chris Brown (who is featured elsewhere on the album). It is personal, beautiful, strikingly mature, and hits that mid-tempo sweet spot between straight-up ballad and full-on dance number.
“Lost in Paradise”
Sure, the dubby breakdowns feel a little bit dated in 2015, but at the time of Unapologetic’s release, that shit was timely. Also working for “Lost in Paradise” is the fact that the song’s pre-chorus and chorus are perhaps the poppiest on the album: give it a listen and then try to get it out of your head.
Shoulda-Been Singles From Rihanna’s Eighth Studio Album
Jeez, this album still isn’t out, so who can say? It’s been almost three years, Rih! THREE YEARS! Give it to us!
What other Rihanna songs do you think would have made great singles? Tell us! And while you’re at it, let us know which artist you’d like to see featured in next week’s Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda Been a Single.