Robin Rihanna Fenty, known worldwide by her stage name Rihanna, is a major pop icon and hit singer. As early as 2005 with her debut single “Pon de Replay” Rihanna made an immediate impact on the billboard charts and with listeners. With nearly 20 years of music to go over, it wasn’t easy to select the top five best Rihanna songs, so we turned to our trusted sources.
Music has gone through many changes over the decades. Not just stylistically, though. According to new research, lyrics to pop songs have grown darker and edgier over time. Researchers at Lawrence Technological University studied popular music lyrics from the 1950s to 2016. In their results, university data scientists and co-authors Kathleen Napier and Lior Shamir wrote that their research shows a “clear and statistically significant change in sentiments expressed through the lyrics of popular music, generally towards a more negative tone.”
This trend can also be seen directly through Rihanna’s nearly two decades of hits. Her early 2000s singles like “Pon de Replay” and “We Ride” are lighter in tone and production as compared to her later hits like “S&M” or “Disturbia.”
Another recent study reveals that many 20-somethings are almost as familiar with oldies as with today’s top hits. We learn this by way of a recent song recognition experiment at New York University, in which nearly 650 millennials took part. Participants, mostly 18 to 25, were shown seven short snippets of one-time Billboard No. 1 hits, after each audio sample, participants were asked to identify the song played. Overall, songs released in the 21st century — 2000 to 2015 — were the best identified. Rihanna, though still a relevant and contemporary artist, now has songs that can reasonably be considered oldies or throwbacks due to their age in terms of original release date.
As the years roll on by, Rihanna continues to cement her legacy as a pop icon. Our list of the top five best Rihanna songs might even spark a trip down memory lane. Let us know your favorite tracks in the comments below!
The List: Best Rihanna Songs, According to Experts
1. “Work” ft. Drake (2016)
This pop track featuring Drake was released in 2016 and became a massive global hit. “In many ways, ‘Work’ feels like the song Rihanna has been feeling her way towards throughout her career. Where ‘Pon De Replay,’ her introduction to the world stage, rode heavily on Afro-Caribbean trends, ‘Work’ has spawned its own imitators in dancehall and pop spheres. If ‘Replay’ appealed by stressing Rihanna’s natural Bajan[Barbados] cadence, ‘Work’ finds her feeling out a faded, diasporic patois that screws together rap and Kingstonian slang into a voice that is distinctively hers,” raves Pitchfork.
— Rihanna (@rihanna) February 22, 2016
“By the time Rihanna dropped ‘ANTI,’ she had nothing left to prove. After a decade of hitmaking, Rihanna was already recognized as a towering figure of pop and R&B. In only a few short years, she’d become an entrepreneurial fashion icon as well. But why stop there? With ‘Work,’ Rihanna ascended from pop queen to musical deity,” praises Consequence Sound.
“’Work, work, work, work, work.’ Name a more motivational, fun and iconic pop culture moment? This dancehall and reggae-pop-inspired riddim once again featuring the biggest rap star of the moment — Drake — smashed the Billboard 100 and remained at the top for nine weeks straight and with good reason. The rhythmic explosions, the vocals from Ri, the melodic rap from Drake, it all bought[sic] this perfectly imperfect tune together,” exclaims Glamour.
2. “Umbrella” (2007)
This major hit song is perhaps one of Rihanna’s best-known tracks of all time. “Rihanna’s career can be split into two eras: Before ‘Umbrella,’ and after. ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’s’ lead single changed everything. Up to this point, Rihanna was a promising and successful pop star. After ‘Umbrella,’ she became a superstar… ‘Umbrella’ was an instant hit, and is clearly Rihanna’s signature song. In a career full of ‘mama say, mama sa, ma-ma-ko-ssas’ and ‘bum bum be dums’, it’s ‘Umbrella’s’ iconic ‘ella-ella-ella-ay’ that the world will be gently humming until the end of time. ‘Umbrella’ was both the making and the solidification of an icon,” gushes The Tab.
13 years ago today Rihanna's Umbrella was released! pic.twitter.com/dqsQxUFDq6
— We Found Love (@rihannalately) March 29, 2020
“You could, of course, argue that Rihanna has recorded edgier and more experimental tracks since 2007, the year ‘Umbrella’ topped the British charts for 10 weeks, and you would be quite right. But has she ever made a flat-out better single? From the minute Jay-Z’s terrible introductory rap slings its hook, Umbrella is an entirely perfect piece of pop music,” offers The Guardian.
“At the top of our list of best Rihanna songs is ‘Umbrella,’ which is not only our favorite but also a track that propelled her into the true limelight. There’s little left unsaid about this song, so enshrined in our consciousness that it’s difficult to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. Over fifteen years after its release,” writes High Snobiety.
3. “Needed Me” (2016)
In a track with pounding bass, Rihanna showcases her sexy and dangerous dark side. “Rihanna’s smash hit ‘Needed Me’ captures her unique musical style. It’s a perfect mix of trap beats and pop melodies, showcasing her amazing vocal talent. The words express a woman who knows her value and doesn’t need anyone else to prove it. Plus, it has a calm, laid-back feel which makes it even better,” claims Singer’s Room.
— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) September 12, 2016
“This anti-romantic anthem is one of the edgier moments on her latest album, musically and lyrically. The production is dark and futuristic, slinking along at an ominous crawl as Rihanna brushes off a lover with an attitude that would destroy most men on the receiving end. ‘I was good on my own,’ … She doesn’t need his white horse or his carriage. She got what she wanted, and now it’s time for him to get his own damn cab ride home,” opines USA Today.
“The minimalist beat is something of a surprise, coming from trap-pop king DJ Mustard, all echoing atmospheric synths and disembodied voices. The verses are verbal daggers spoken melodically… It’s all intensely satisfying to listen to, as it takes the themes that run through much of Rihanna’s songs to their logical and inescapable conclusion, articulated with pure confidence,” details Pitchfork.
4. “What’s My Name?” ft. Drake (2010)
In the second Drake collaboration to make our list, “What’s My Name?” is an absolute earworm. “The beauty of Rihanna’s music is that it taps into the better memories of nostalgic love, recalling when you gazed upon your first middle school crush in the hallway, stumbled in too-high heels at your senior prom or awkwardly having your first kiss after gym practice. ‘What’s My Name’ is the embodiment of that blissful naiveté,” adds Uproxx.
Rihanna – What's My Name Featuring Drake, 2010 💎💎 pic.twitter.com/VkSB3JAFh0
— JAY HOVA (@Hiphop_Banelvin) February 20, 2023
“’Loud’ is an album that’s famously all killer, no filler – and second single ‘What’s My Name’ delivered consistency on the excellence of the lead single before it in spade loads. Drake and Rihanna collaborating is a guaranteed success – and on What’s My Name the two thrive. It shot to number one in the US and the UK and was inescapable. Nothing is more powerful than red-headed Rihanna,” adds The Tab.
“Rihanna’s early releases were steeped in reggae and dancehall, territory ‘What’s My Name’ returns to, albeit viewed through the electro-pop lens of Norwegian hit-machine producers Stargate. The end result sounds humid and sultry, a song that slowly unwinds: Drake makes a guest appearance, but it’s Rihanna who sounds in charge throughout,” offers The Guardian.
5. “We Found Love” ft. Calvin Harris (2010)
Some of Rihanna’s best work can be found in her collaborations with other artists like Drake, Jay-Z, and Calvin Harris. “Rihanna turned it into a global phenomenon that topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks… no one could have brought the same Technicolor joie de vivre to this big room extravaganza as Rihanna, whose near-falsetto voice summons peak-time memories on the dance floor. The chorus – ‘We found love in a hopeless place’ – got a literal interpretation in Melina Matsuoka’s controversial video, which found Rihanna lost in a tumultuous and toxic relationship,” writes Rolling Stone.
The Grammy-winning song spent a record 10 weeks at #1 in the US and was crowned the biggest female Hot 100 hit of the 2010s. It's RIAA certified 9x Platinum and sold over 30 million units worldwide. pic.twitter.com/qRmRLGBsfG
— FentyStats (@FentyStats) September 22, 2022
“By 2011, Rihanna had already poured a great deal of her heart out through her music. But upon the release of ‘We Found Love,’ that vulnerability catapulted her career to new heights. She somehow managed to transform painful memories into a world-shaking, utterly inescapable … four-on-the-floor dance-pop smash,” according to Uproxx.
“Rihanna sounds good in the club. This nine-times-platinum electro triumph is her biggest-selling single ever… It was written and produced by Calvin Harris, who pushes the beat here with an urgency that’s less aggressive than what the producers behind ‘Only Girl (In the World)’ would have done. That ascending synth coming out of the opening chorus is a stroke of genius,” exclaims USA Today.
You might also be interested in:
- The Tab
- Consequence Sound
- Singer’s Room
- The Guardian
- High Snobiety
- Rolling Stone
- USA Today
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