IT’S SUPER BOWL SUNDAY, and I am in the large gothic home of Real Housewife Carlton Gebbia in Beverly Hills, the setting for Rihanna’s Vogue shoot. The 28-year-old singer appears in the doorway, fresh off a plane from Toronto, where the night before she and Drake wrapped the video for their hit single “Work.” She is wearing a vintage Guess leather biker jacket, a gray Star Wars T-shirt, and green Vetements sweatpants, her sleek black hair chopped into a blunt nineties bob. Even such a Netflix-and-chill look cannot conceal the singular proportions of her body. She hugs me hello and then floats upstairs, where hair and makeup stylists await.
I settle into a chair outside and pass the time by—what else?—checking my phone. Thanks to the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, every Instagram post by a pop star has become a source of intrigue, every teased video clip fodder for frenzied speculation. On this particular afternoon, the RiRi chatter, robust on any day, is reaching peak hysteria.
Ten days earlier, Rihanna dropped Anti, her first album since 2012. For seven years, she had released a new pop confection every year, like clockwork. Then, suddenly, nothing. It wasn’t just the timing. Anti immediately announced itself as something different. A defiant, idiosyncratic mix of dance hall, doo-wop, and soul, it did not deliver her usual instantly gratifying, reliable pop formula. Stoking the fire were rumors that Anti was leaked through Tidal, the streaming service run by Jay Z and co-owned by Rihanna. Next were the reports of impossibly low sales figures. Then, the day before, out of nowhere, came the surprise release of Beyoncé’s pointedly political video for “Formation.” The Internet is ablaze: Did Bey just try to steal RiRi’s thunder? And, most breathlessly: Is Rihanna going to make a surprise appearance at the Super Bowl?!
Rihanna, meanwhile, is reclining on a chaise on a veranda in the sun, taking pulls from a joint and sending wisps of smoke into the cloudless California sky. She’s listening to a remix of Sia’s “Chandelier,” occasionally belting out a lyric in that inimitable Bajan tone: “I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist! Like it doesn’t exist!”
WE ARE LIVING in a golden age of pop divas. Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Adele: Rarely have the top ranks been so ruled by women. We feel vulnerable with Adele, empowered by Taylor. We want to watch Beyoncé. Watch her dance, watch her dominate the marketplace, watch her slay. In this gloriously crowded arena, Rihanna transmits something unique. Not afraid to show us her flaws, Rihanna inspires us to, as her friend Cara Delevingne puts it, “go with your instinct and go with your gut, and if people don’t like you, fuck ’em.”
This take-it-or-leave-it realness is what draws young women into the ranks of Rihanna’s fiercely loyal fan base, known as her Navy, after a lyric from her song “G4L.” And in 2016, the Navy is going to get a lot of Rihanna.
Over the next few weeks alone, her plan is to fly to New York to debut a collection she designed for Puma at New York Fashion Week; return to L.A. for the Grammys; then head to London to perform at the Brit Awards (she will grind with Drake in white-hot fringed pants); and, two days after that, go back to California to begin a 63-city world tour. Her looks on tour are “inspired by neutral earth tones,” she says, “and evolve from one extreme to the other as the show progresses.” Joining her will be Big Sean and the Weeknd in Europe, as well as Travis Scott, whom she’s been seen out with in the last few months. “I like to bring people who can get the crowd excited,” she says.
“I probably am going to have like four days of tour rehearsal in total, which is Freaking. Me. Out,”