Like most unlikely stories involving Rihanna, the legend surrounding her signing to Def Jam Records turns out to be true.
She was only 16 in 2004 when she met with Jay Z, then president of Def Jam, at the company’s midtown headquarters, according to John Seabrook’s recent book, “The Song Machine.” After hearing her sing a ballad and what would become her first hit, “Pon de Replay,” Jay Z offered her a contract on the spot and then refused to let her leave the building until the details were settled and she signed to the label.
“There’s only two ways out,” Jay Z told Rihanna, according to Seabrook. “Out the door or through this window.” She said she was flattered and signed the contract in the middle of the night. She chose the door.
In the following years, Rihanna, with Def Jam’s help, grew into one of the world’s biggest stars, selling more than 54 million albums worldwide, as she rolled out one hit album after another, almost yearly.
For her new album, “Anti,” however, Rihanna has turned everything upside down.
She left Def Jam, starting her own label, Westbury Road Entertainment, distributed through Jay Z’s Roc Nation. She also took control of her career, making all the decisions on the rollout of “Anti,” which, by nearly all accounts, did not go smoothly.
Marked by numerous delays and several surprising changes in direction, “Anti” was accidentally leaked on Tidal before its scheduled release, leading Rihanna to make it available for free for a limited amount of time.
Her 2015 singles “FourFiveSeconds,” with Paul McCartney and Kanye West, and the critically acclaimed “Bitch Better Have My Money” didn’t even appear on the album.
“If this happened with a new artist, it would have been a disaster,” says Jem Aswad, a senior editor at music industry trade magazine Billboard. “For her, the irony is that none of it really hurt her or the album all that much. . . . It’s just a brilliant case of making lemonade out of lemons.”
Despite all the struggles surrounding “Anti,” it still managed to debut at No. 1 and has already been certified platinum, thanks, in part, to a reported $25 million marketing deal with Samsung. The first single, “Work,” has also hit No. 1, marking Rihanna’s 14th chart-topper — more than any other artist except The Beatles and Mariah Carey. And the “Anti” tour, which stops in Brooklyn Sunday, March 27, and Wednesday, March 30, with two shows at the Barclays Center, is basically a sold-out success already.
“It is already largely forgotten,” Aswad says. “It’s a testament to the strength of her personal brand, of which music is only a small part. . . . She really reaches all cultures. She has a huge Instagram presence, a large male audience, an audience that is culturally more diverse. . . . Her demographic is all over the map, aside from maybe the very old and the very young, and those groups aren’t much of a consuming audience.”
According to Port Washington-based NPD Group, a market research company, Rihanna is the most marketable of all big-name celebrities, including famous athletes, actors and other musicians. The company’s recent survey also showed that Rihanna’s strong connection to her fans made her 3.7 times more likely than an average celebrity to create a successful brand endorsement campaign — edging out Beyoncé, Usher and Ne-Yo.
So it should be no surprise that Rihanna can also sell her fans on her new approach to music and business.
Rihanna recently told Vogue that she had grown bored of the pop formula that had made her such a success. “I just gravitated toward the songs that were honest to where I’m at right now,” she says. “It might not be some automatic record that will be Top 40. But I felt like I earned the right to do that now.”
The risk-taking also seems to be extending to her concerts. Reports from the early stops on the tour suggest that she is combining old and new material in new ways, with video backdrops and a dance troupe with Cirque du Soleil-like moves to enhance the experience.
And there is no longer any doubt who is in control.
“Women feel empowered when they can do the things that are supposed to be only for men, you know?” Rihanna told Vogue. “It breaks boundaries, it’s liberating, and it’s empowering when you feel like, ‘Well, I can do that, too.’ ”
At a recent concert in Miami, Rihanna kicked the show off telling fans the two-hour concert would be filled with surprises: “Brand-new tour, brand-new era, brand-new album.”
And brand-new Rihanna legends, no doubt.