The Number Ones

December 4, 2010

The Number Ones: Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In The World)”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

It’s fun to imagine Rihanna looking around at the circa-2010 pop landscape, taking in the sudden booming popularity of EDM-infused club-pop, and realizing that she had the opportunity to take her peers to school. Rihanna didn’t have deep roots in the gay-club underground, the way someone like Lady Gaga did, and she wasn’t part of the Max Martin machine that so ruthlessly exploited those sounds. But Rihanna had plenty of experience making straight-up slamming dance-pop; past hits like “Don’t Stop The Music” and “Disturbia” had arguably contributed to the atmosphere where those sounds could take over. Rihanna also had the vision.

“Only Girl (In The World)” is a clear example of that vision at work. Rihanna didn’t have anything to do with writing or producing “Only Girl,” but she and her collaborators knew what to do in that moment. If everyone else was heading to clubland, Rihanna was going deeper and harder — to the very heart of that world. She was going to come out blasting with a single that sounded like the cheesiest early-’90s Snap! and Black Box and La Bouche anthems, fired through a futuristic filter. She was going to imagine the future that those records projected, and she was going to make a banger that turned that future into a reality. She was going to diva-wail her way through the year’s biggest, most obvious rush-the-floor hands-in-the-air rager, and she was going to look good doing it.

When Rihanna’s peers were taking inspiration from a certain set of sounds, she took those sounds back to the source, and she turned them into something undeniable. It seems so simple, but if it was easy, everyone else would do it.

Over the past week or so, my Twitter feed has been in love with “Planet Of The Bass,” the absurdist TikTok hit that gleefully lampoons the broken-English Euro-dance jock jams of the early ’90s: “All of the dream! How does it mean!” “Only Girl (In The World)” doesn’t have a deep-voiced bald guy in giant sunglasses rapping, and it wasn’t made with the express intention of being funny. But “Only Girl” really does the same things, right down to the lyrics, which sound like they’ve been run through Google translate at least three times. The opening line — “I want you to love me like I’m a hot ride” — is just an insane combination of words, a phrase that nobody would ever say. But Rihanna and her collaborators know that language itself barely matters when the drums kick hard enough.

Like a lot of great pop songs, “Only Girl (In The World)” is, among other things, the product of market forces at work. When many of the world’s most successful producers and songwriters assembled to make the tracks for Rihanna’s Loud album, Def Jam’s boss had a specific directive for them. In 2018, Tor Erik Hermansen, one half of the Norwegian production team Stargate, told Entertainment Weekly, “We had a meeting with LA Reid, who said, ‘OK, Rated R was great, but now it’s back to the good times.’ Those were his exact words.”

But LA Reid wasn’t the only one driving that ship. In a different interview, Hermansen told Vibe that Rihanna was actively seeking to make good-time music: “Rihanna came to us before we started recording this record and said, ‘I feel great about myself. I want to go back to having fun, I want to make happy and uptempo records.'” That probably had a lot to do with her desire to be seen as something other than Chris Brown’s victim, but it was also a canny reading of the room. During that long extended recession, good-time music was what people wanted. “Only Girl (In The World)” isn’t all frothy frivolity, but it definitely hits those endorphin-rush buttons.

The Stargate guys were obviously no strangers to Rihanna. They’d been working with her since the beginning of her career, and they also produced “What’s My Name?,” the Drake collaboration that actually served as the second single from Loud but that beat “Only Girl (In The World)” to #1. On “Only Girl (In The World),” the Stargate guys had two co-writers. One was Crystal Nicole, the Atlanta R&B singer and songwriter who recorded as Cristyle and who’s been in this column as one of the writers of Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body.” The other was Sandy Vee, a French producer who’d done a whole lot of work with David Guetta. (Sandy Vee’s work will appear in this column again very soon.)

Sandy Vee first caught David Guetta’s attention with the stomping Zeppelin-sampling electro-house track “Bleep.” That was his background, and he knew how to put together a banging dance beat. “Only Girl (In The World)” draws on that background. In the “Only Girl” beat, you can hear DJs’ party-starting tricks at work. It starts out with a lockstep house beat and a fluttering, twinkling synth riff. As the song builds, you hear little elements coming in, one by one: The clarion-call beeps of the chorus riff, the militaristic breakbeat, the keyboard that sounds like a guitar with a bunch of distortion pedals being mashed at once. As producers, Stargate and Sandy Vee know when to push all those pieces into the red and when to strip them away, putting the sole focus on Rihanna’s voice. It’s an absolutely shameless track, a naked attempt to manipulate anyone dancing into full-freakout mode by the time the final chorus hits. I say this with deep admiration.

Lyrically, “Only Girl (In The World)” hits the same themes — sex, attraction, longing — as so many other Rihanna tracks. There’s innuendo in there. Rihanna’s gonna make you beg for it, and then you’re gonna swallow your pride. She’ll tell you all the secrets that she’s keeping, and you can come inside. Some of the lyrics only barely even make sense: “Hold me like a pillow, make me feel right.” But there’s also vulnerability in that monster chorus. Rihanna sings that she wants you to make her feel special — like she’s the only one that you’ll ever love. It doesn’t matter if that’s not really the case; she just wants to feel it.

Crystal Nicole sang the demo for “Only Girl (In The World).” As with just about every demo for a Rihanna song, the whole thing is pretty much there already, right down to the little giggles and ad-libs on the first verse. Rihanna’s only rarely involved in writing her songs, and she’s faithful about recreating the tracks that she’s given. But the songs always lose something when the person singing isn’t Rihanna, even if the singer is the track’s primary songwriter.

In the case of “Only Girl,” the song gets an extra charge from the fact that Rihanna really sings it. On that chorus, she channels her inner house diva, and she belts for the sky. When the song came out, I’d gotten used to Rihanna’s cold and mechanistic delivery, and it was exciting to hear her really throwing herself into a song like that. She doesn’t need to do that, but when she commits hard enough, it can make for some goosebump moments. (Kuk Harrell, longtime collaborator of The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, got a production credit on “Only Girl,” just as he did on “What’s My Name?,” presumably for recording Rihanna’s vocals.)

In that Entertainment Weekly article, the Stargate guys say that Rihanna knew what “Only Girl (In The World)” would become the first time she heard the demo. She wanted the song, and she might’ve even said that it would be the album’s first single before she recorded her version. A few days later, Katy Perry also heard the demo, and she wanted the song, too. But the Stargate guys made the track for Rihanna, and Rihanna was the one who got it. That’s good. Katy Perry wouldn’t have been able to sing the song anywhere near as well. We can say this for certain because Katy sang an acoustic “Only Girl” cover while touring in 2011. It was OK. (Katy Perry got a couple of her own Stargate tracks, and we’ll be talking about one of them soon.)

“Only Girl (In The World)” is a huge, dramatic song. One of the Stargate guys points out that there’s a key change between the verses and the choruses, so whenever that hook comes in, there’s a sudden shift — almost like you’re at the top of the climb on a roller coaster and then you drop. The change isn’t enough to make the song incoherent; the steady, pulsing beat keeps it anchored. But the switch to world-swallowing anthem feels sudden. Even within the chorus, we get a few discrete movements — the bit where the drums drop away, the rattling breakbeat cranking its way up, the throbbing bass and kickdrum coming back in. It’s a classic example of the way dance-music dynamics — the peaks and valleys and slow builds of the track — can work within the context of a four-minute pop-song structure. Even the bridge, the “take me for a ride ride” bit, mostly serves to build anticipation for that final chorus.

Rihanna must’ve spent some time between albums working on her voice, since her singing on “Only Girl” is more muscular and commanding than anything she’d done up to that point. I’m sure she’s got filters on her voice, and Crystal Nicole’s backing vocals probably also do a lot of work, but I love how Rihanna’s just howling by the end of it. She really sells the track’s drama. In the video, directed by Rihanna’s regular collaborator Anthony Mandler, she’s the only person onscreen. She’s dancing on psychedelically colored hillsides while fireworks burst and spherical balloons float all around her. On the bridge, she’s atop some weird suspended-in-midair jungle-gym structure. She looks hot as hell, but that’s nothing new. The whole thing seems to take place in some fantasy dreamland, where she is the only girl in the world.

“Only Girl (In The World)” took a couple of months to reach #1, and it didn’t have the immediate blockbuster appeal of “What’s My Name?,” which had the tabloid factor of Drake and Rihanna being together on a song for the first time. So “What’s My Name?” was the first to hit #1, but those two singles didn’t hurt each other. They sounded nothing like one another, and they seemed to belong to two entirely different genres. If anything, those two tracks gave each other more momentum. If not for the one week when Far East Movement’s “Like A G6” returned to #1, Rihanna would’ve pulled off the rare feat of going back-to-back at the top of the Hot 100. At this point, “Only Girl” stands as the slightly bigger of those two Loud singles. Earlier this year, it went platinum for a seventh time. “What’s My Name?,” meanwhile, has only gone platinum six times.

Rihanna’s Loud album spun off more hits, and Rihanna kept making hammering, dramatic dance-pop anthems. Amazingly, “Only Girl (In The World)” is not the best example of Rihanna going full-on house diva. We’ll get to that song soon enough.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: In 2010, when they were getting near the end of their run on the British X-Factor, the baby One Direction sang a cover of “Only Girl (In The World),” with some byzantine pronoun work done to the chorus. (They also sang that first line as “I want you to love me like I’m a hot guy,” which is funny.) This seems like an absolutely baffling song choice for them, but it must’ve worked. By that point in their run, you couldn’t even hear what the judges said after their performances because the girls in the audience were screaming too loud. Here’s their “Only Girl”:

(One Direction’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 2013’s “Best Song Ever,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6. Eventually, both Zayn Malik and Harry Styles will appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the intense, experimental cover of “Only Girl (In The World)” that Xiu Xiu released in 2011:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a very young Ariana Grande, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, singing an extremely Broadway oldies-style version of “Only Girl (In The World)” at something called the 2011 Skating/Gymnastics Spectacular:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jimmy Eat World frontman Jim Adkins playing a tender solo-acoustic cover of “Only Girl (In The World)” (and doing the same “like I’m a hot guy” thing as One Direction) in a 2013 session for NME:

(Jimmy Eat World’s highest-charting single, 2001’s “The Middle,” peaked at #5, and it’ll eventually appear in the Alternative Number Ones. Spoiler for that column: It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson, an artist who’s been in this column a couple of times and who will be back in here, covering “Only Girl (In The World)” and introducing her kids on a 2020 episode of her daytime talk show:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Want you to buy it like a thief in the night. I guess thieves don’t buy things. They steal them. That’s the whole point of being a thief. But it’s hard coming up with lyrics to coherently flip around for this little bit of the column. If you want to steal the book like a thief in the night, that’s fine with me, too.

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