The Number Ones

May 13, 2006

The Number Ones: Rihanna’s “SOS”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

When Rihanna first arrived, nobody had any idea that she was a global pop titan in the making. Rihanna, a teenager from Barbados, certainly had presence, but she didn’t have a defined persona. She didn’t even really have a genre. Her music played around in different sandboxes — dancehall reggae, R&B, Euro-club dance-pop — without committing to any of them. Rihanna didn’t have the bendy, virtuosic, melisma-ready vocal chops of some her peers, and that initially seemed like it might limit her career. Even from the beginning, though, Rihanna had songs.

Rihanna first appeared on the mainstream pop radar in the summer of 2005 with a winding dancehall-pop track that seemed built for warm weather. Jay-Z, the man who signed Rihanna to Def Jam, worried that the song might be bigger than the singer. A year later, though, Rihanna landed the first of many #1 hits with a song that was essentially just a bunch of ’80s pop quotes strung together. In the hands of a singer who didn’t have Rihanna’s instincts, “SOS” could’ve come off as a craven, idea-bereft nostalgia play. Rihanna turned it into something else. She used that song to build herself up, to make herself seem titanic. Soon enough, she was titanic. “SOS” radiated promise, and Rihanna spent the next decade fulfilling and exceeding that promise.

The Right Excellent Robyn Rihanna Fenty, officially a National Hero of Barbados, was born in the Bajan province of Saint Michael, and she grew up in Bridgetown, the country’s biggest city. (When Rihanna was born, Exposé’s “Seasons Change” was the #1 song in America. I can’t find any record of what was #1 in Barbados then.) Rihanna’s Guyanese-born mother was an accountant, and her Irish-descended father worked in a warehouse. Rihanna’s father was an alcoholic and a crack addict, and he was physically abusive toward her mother and sometimes toward Rihanna herself. As a kid, Rihanna suffered from crippling headaches that doctors couldn’t diagnose, but those headaches disappeared when Rihanna was 14, around the time that her parents divorced.

In school, Rihanna served in a quasi-military program for Bajan kids, perhaps prepping for her eventual role in Battleship, and she formed a girl group called Contrast with a couple of school friends. In 2003, when Rihanna was 15, Contrast got a chance to audition for Evan Rogers, an American songwriter and producer. Rogers, a Connecticut native, had met his songwriting partner Carl Sturken in the late ’70s, when they were the two white guys in a disco/funk cover band. Together, Rogers and Sturken wrote and produced tracks for ’80s R&B stars like Evelyn “Champagne” King, Stephanie Mills, and Cheryl Lynn. At a couple of points in the ’80s, Rogers tried to step out as a solo artist, but his two albums — one for RCA in 1985, another for Capitol four years later — both tanked.

Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken got their big break when they wrote and produced “Soldier Of Love.” Rogers initially meant to record that song himself, but instead it became a comeback smash for former Number Ones artist Donny Osmond. (“Soldier Of Love” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.) From there, Rogers and Sturken put together a group called Rythm Syndicate. Rogers, then in his thirties, was the lead singer, and I have no idea why they spelled “Rythm” like that. Rythm Syndicate got to #2 with the 1991 track “P.A.S.S.I.O.N.,” which managed to bite Prince and Teddy Riley at the same time. (It’s another 7.) While this was happening, Rihanna was a toddler.

Rythm Syndicate didn’t last long, but Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken kept writing and producing tracks. In the late ’90s, they’d become part of the teen-pop assembly line, cranking out songs for Boyzone, *NSYNC, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson. They also discovered and developed a singer named Javier Colon, who didn’t have a lot of success with his Capitol deal but who later won the first season of The Voice. (Javier Colon made it to #95 with the 2003 Rogers and Sturken collab “Crazy,” but his highest-charting single came after he won The Voice. 2011’s “Stitch By Stitch,” peaked at #17.) Rogers and Sturken were doing just fine for themselves, but they weren’t exactly pop kingmakers until they met Rihanna.

Rogers and Sturken were both married to women from Barbados; they’d met their wives on the same vacation in the ’80s. Every year, Rogers and his wife would return to Barbados for the holidays. Whenever they were there, people would want to audition for them. Rogers’ wife had been childhood friends with the mother of one of the non-Rihanna members of Contrast, so Rogers agreed to give the group a shot. Rihanna was late to the audition, which frustrated the other two singers to no end. When Rihanna walked in, though, Rogers could see the star quality immediately. Rogers wasn’t especially interested in working with Contrast as a group, but he wanted to hear more from Rihanna.

Soon afterward, Rihanna sang for Evan Rogers and his wife. She was raw and untrained, but Rogers was still impressed. There’s video online of a 15-year-old Rihanna singing Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” and her voice just isn’t capable of doing Mariah things, but she still looks and carries herself like the Rihanna that we know today. Apparently, that was enough for Evan Rogers. He invited Rihanna to stay with him and his wife in Connecticut and to work on demos. Rihanna signed with Rogers and Sturken’s Syndicated Rhythm production company, and she came to Connecticut in 2004.

When Robyn Fenty signed with Rogers and Sturken, they decided that Rihanna, her middle name, should be her stage name, reasoning that there was already a Robyn out there. (The Swedish Robyn’s two highest-charting singles, 1997’s “Show Me Love” and “Do You Know (What It Takes),” both peaked at #7. They’re both 8s.) When Rogers and Sturken were working with Rihanna, they heard a rough demo of “Pon De Replay,” a dancehall-pop track built on a tweaked version of the Diwali riddim, the same instrumental track that had powered hits like Sean Paul’s “Get Busy.” Rogers and Sturken finished the track, and Rihanna recorded it as a demo.

With “Pon De Replay” and a few more demos, Rogers and Sturken started shopping Rihanna around to different record labels. An early audition for Clive Davis’ J Records went terribly, and Rogers and Sturken were worried about taking her to Def Jam, figuring that she might freeze up when she came face-to-face with a massive star like Jay-Z. Rihanna did, in fact, freak out when she first laid eyes on Jay, and she needed to take time to collect herself. Later on, Jay told Rolling Stone, “She was obviously nervous. Now, she has a big personality, but I didn’t get that in the meeting. What I did get was her eyes, this determination. She was fierce — like Kobe Bryant. I knew she was a star.”

Jay-Z immediately offered Rihanna a deal, and he wouldn’t let her leave the Def Jam offices until she’d signed; he was worried that another label would steal her away before the paperwork was done. Rihanna recorded her 2005 debut Music Of The Sun in a few months. Rogers and Sturken wrote and produced much of the album, and it’s a generally unformed collection of dancehall-adjacent pop without a ton of personality. But Music Of The Sun had “Pon De Replay,” a song that was destined to become a summer anthem. “Pon De Replay” came out as Rihanna’s debut single, and it went all the way to #2, kept out of the top spot only by Mariah Carey’s blockbuster “We Belong Together.” (“Pon De Replay” is a 9.)

After “Pon De Replay,” Rihanna could’ve easily become a one-hit wonder. That’s what happened with Lumidee, the Harlem-born singer who also had a hit built on the Diwali riddim. (Lumidee’s “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)” peaked at #3 in 2003. It’s a 9.) Rihanna’s “Pon De Replay” follow-up, the Trackmasters-produced “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want,” only made it to #36. Music Of The Sun eventually went platinum, but that didn’t happen until 2020, presumably on the enduring strength of “Pon De Replay” streams. But Rihanna almost immediately went to work on her next album, and her sophomore LP A Girl Like Me came out just eight months after Music Of The Sun.

For much of her career, that insanely quick recording pace was Rihanna’s modus operandi. As she became a star, Rihanna came out with a new LP almost every year. At any given moment, no matter what was going on in her life, she’d have another monster single on the charts. She’d tweak her sound and her image, but she was always there, always working. For the longest time, Rihanna was defined by her presence, which is why it’s so weird that she’s now defined by her absence. As I write this, Rihanna is getting ready to give this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show, and it’ll be her first performance of any kind in more than five years. Once upon a time, you could take the constant stream of new Rihanna music for granted. We didn’t know how good we had it.

On A Girl Like Me, Rihanna kept working with Rogers and Sturken, and she kept her dancehall influence intact, but she also branched out in different musical directions. “SOS,” the album’s first single, came from songwriter Evan “E. Kidd” Bogart and producer JR Rotem. Evan Bogart is the son of the late Casablanca Records boss Neil, and his only songwriting credit before “SOS” is one of Paris Hilton’s non-“Stars Are Blind” songs. JR Rotem is a South African-born Jewish musician who’d mostly grown up in the Bay Area and who’d studied piano at Berklee College Of Music. Rotem got his start when he produced the 2001 Destiny’s Child album track “Fancy,” and he went on to make beats for rappers like Talib Kweli, Snoop Dogg, Fabolous, and 50 Cent. (We’ll see Rotem’s work in this column a bunch of times.)

JR Rotem built “SOS” on a sample of a song that already had a rich history. Ed Cobb was a member of the Four Preps, a singing group who had a couple of massive pop hits just before the 1958 launch of the Hot 100. In 1964, Cobb wrote and produced a song called “Tainted Love” for the teenage soul singer Gloria Jones, and she released it as a B-side in 1965. “Tainted Love” went nowhere at first, but it became a cult favorite on the UK’s Northern Soul scene in the ’70s. By then, Jones had moved to the UK, where she sang backup and played keyboards for T. Rex. Jones also had a kid with T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan. When Bolan died in a 1977 car crash, Jones was the driver. (Jones survived that crash, and she’s still around today. Jones didn’t play on T. Rex’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 1971’s “Bang A Gong (Get It On),” which peaked at #10. It’s a 9.)

In 1981, the UK duo Soft Cell covered “Tainted Love,” which they knew from the Northern Soul scene, and they transformed the song into an arch and gasping synthpop track. The Soft Cell version of “Tainted Love” was a deliberate provocation — a classic soul song, with all the soul intentionally stripped away, reduced to lurching computer-funk. But Soft Cell singer Marc Almond’s wounded, decadent, cocaine-constricted “Tainted Love” vocal had its own kind of power, and Soft Cell paired that vocal with a monolithic, unstoppable beat. Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” cover became the biggest hit of the year in the UK. In the early-MTV era, as British new wave first crashed the American charts, “Tainted Love” became a hit here, too. In the summer of 1982, while the Human Leangue’s “Don’t You Want Me?” sat atop the Hot 100, “Tainted Love” peaked at #8. (It’s a 9.)

In 1982, “Tainted Love” must’ve sounded like a radical new vision of the future. By 2006, it was a familiar, beloved oldie, a staple of retro-’80s dance parties. In writing “SOS,” JR Rotem and Evan Bogart sampled the living hell out of the Soft Cell “Tainted Love” beat and quoted a line from its lyrics: “I toss and turn, I can’t sleep at night.” Because of that sample, “Tainted Love” writer Ed Cobb got a songwriting credit on “SOS,” even though he’d been dead for seven years when the song came out. Rotem added a thundering kick-drum shuffle of his own, turning that monster beat into something resembling house music.

The “SOS” lyrics are all about romantic desperation, and they’re mostly a stitched-together collection of pop-song quotes: “Take on me, you know inside you feel it, right?/ Take me on, I could just die up in your arms tonight/ I melt with you, you got me head over heels/ Boy, you keep me hangin’ on, the way you make me feel.” Those lyrics are perfectly trite, and they lump all of ’80s pop into one indistinct whole. But those lyrics also capture that weird sensation of only being able to properly convey your feelings through the medium of pop music. Picture Rihanna outside someone’s window, holding up a boom box, frantically tuning to different radio stations to find the exact right song.

JR Rotem and Evan Bogart initially offered “SOS” to Rihanna’s Def Jam labelmate Christina Milian, but she turned it down because she thought the song was too pop for her. (Milian’s highest-charting single, the proto-Rihanna 2005 track “Dip It Low,” peaked at #5. It’s a 6.) LA Reid took the track to Rihanna instead. John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine has a great quote from Reid about giving the song to Rihanna and not worrying about whether it wasn’t Black enough: “She’s Madonna. She’s an international pop star. Let’s make the people dance.”

The people danced. Rihanna doesn’t bring a whole lot of vocal firepower to “SOS,” and she doesn’t need to. A song like “SOS” demands total simplicity, and Rihanna gives it a straight-ahead, muscular delivery. Rihanna never needed to oversing anything; she always sounded too cool to emote. On “SOS,” Rihanna never sounds desperate for love, but she does seem vaguely aggravated that the target of her affections isn’t immediately reciprocating: “Y-O-U are makin’ this hard.” Rihanna delivers “SOS” with the kind of flirty edge that you can only achieve when you possess total confidence. She knows that she’s going to get whatever she wants, and she’s only play-acting the idea that she needs someone to rescue her. Coming from Rihanna, “SOS” sounds like a triumphant declaration, not a statement of need.

Rihanna and Soft Cell’s Marc Almond don’t have a whole lot in common on the surface, but they both bring a gleaming blankness that can be strangely thrilling. There’s always been a slightly mechanistic quality in Rihanna’s voice, and it pairs beautifully with the gigantic, clomping “Tainted Love” synths. On the hook, Rihanna doesn’t even really sing. Instead, she chants robotically over the beat: “SOS-please-someone-help-me.” But there’s still personality in Rihanna’s delivery — a bratty intensity that she gradually turned into a deadly weapon. Rihanna doesn’t even sound like she’s trying, and that works for her. In her sleek and icy presence, Rihanna has always been effortlessly commanding. Her voice has a gravitational pull that’s impossible to replicate.

“SOS” wasn’t the only hit on Rihanna’s A Girl Like Me album. She followed that single with “Unfaithful,” a dark and stormy piano ballad written by the team of Stargate and former Number Ones artist Ne-Yo. “Unfaithful” was supposed to be Rihanna’s rock song; it was explicitly patterned after the stuff that Evanescence were making at the time. I don’t like “Unfaithful” as much as “SOS,” but it’s striking how Rihanna sounds equally comfortable on both songs. On “Unfaithful,” she’s just slightly haunted and vulnerable. “Unfaithful” made it as high as #6. (It’s a 7.)

After “Unfaithful,” Rihanna teamed up with Sean Paul, an artist who’s been in this column a few times, for the bleepy, flirty, dancehall-adjacent banger “Break It Off,” which peaked at #9 even though it didn’t have a video. (It’s an 8.) A Girl Like You quickly went platinum, and it eventually went all the way to double platinum in the streaming era. Still, Rihanna quickly developed a reputation as a singles artist whose albums were mostly filler. For a long time, that wasn’t really a problem, since her singles popped off so hard. “SOS” was a big song for Rihanna, but she had much, much bigger songs on the way. We’ll soon see a whole lot more of Rihanna in this column.

GRADE: 8/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Chipettes member Jeanette singing “SOS” in the 2011 film Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. This time, please, someone come and buy the book.

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