The Number Ones

December 1, 2012

The Number Ones: Rihanna’s “Diamonds”

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

It seemed like it would keep happening forever. For the better part of a decade, Rihanna was the most mechanistic, efficient pop star on the planet. Once a year, with the regularity of a software update, she would release another album. Def Jam, Rihanna’s label, would assemble some of the world’s most prominent producers and songwriters, and those people would get together with the express intent of writing potential hits for Rihanna. Rihanna would record an LP’s worth of those potential hits, and at least one of those songs, inevitably, would become a gigantic global smash. Rihanna never had any space between album cycles, and she never fell off of the charts. She kept that impossible pace up for years, and then, without warning, she stopped.

In 2012, Rihanna finally landed her first #1 album in America. That’s saying something. Rihanna’s tally of #1 singles was already well into the double digits, but people didn’t take her seriously enough to buy her album during its release week. Rihanna was a prototypical singles artist, a human delivery system for giant songs. As a celebrity, she was a huge deal. As an artist, she wasn’t taken terribly seriously until she finally slowed down her album-a-year pace and started presenting her records as personal statements. Unapologetic, Rihanna’s seventh LP, was her first to go all the way to #1. Once she achieved that benchmark, she immediately stepped off of that relentless treadmill. It was as if she just needed that one final bit of validation before moving onto a whole different phase of stardom, one defined more by her absence than her presence.

Unapologetic is a very Rihanna album. It doesn’t have a towering anthem on the level of “Umbrella” or “We Found Love,” but it definitely has its share of hits. Once again, Rihanna went to work with a whole army of collaborators, some of whom had been with Rihanna for most of her career and some of whom were new faces. “Diamonds,” the album’s first single and biggest hit, is one more example of that process at work. It’s Rihanna working with Stargate, the Norwegian production duo who produced many of her biggest hits, and with a couple of newer collaborators from very different backgrounds. Together, they made a grand-gesture ballad that still resonates. I wouldn’t put “Diamonds” among Rihanna’s best songs, but the song has stuck around more than I would’ve guessed. When Rihanna briefly returned to the spotlight to play last year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show, “Diamonds” was her big closer.

Unapologetic came together the same way that most Rihanna records came together. While Rihanna was touring and promoting her previous album, 2011’s Talk That Talk, Def Jam put together various producers and songwriters, and they all came up with different tracks that were then sent to Rihanna and her camp. Rihanna’s hit streak was somewhere near its peak. “We Found Love,” the lead single from Talk That Talk, remains an epochal dance-pop banger, and Rihanna continued to be a sought-after guest for other people’s records. Early in 2012, she reached #7 with “Take Care,” her duet with occasional love interest Drake. (It’s a 10.)

“Diamonds” came out of a Stargate production session with Benny Blanco, the young Virginia native who’d come up as a Dr. Luke protege and who’s already been in this column many times. Tor Erik Hermansen, one half of Stargate, later told Entertainment Weekly that the trio was “trying to come up with these big, uptempo dance-pop records” for Rihanna. “Diamonds” came together when they tried something very different.

Stargate and Benny Blanco had been listening to a lot of Kanye West — this would’ve been the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy era — and they hoped to come up with something as grand and majestic as that album. They thought they were making a rap beat, even if the “Diamonds” instrumental is obviously the work of pop producers. It’s slower and more orchestral than what you’d expect from those guys, and it’s full of dramatic piano chords and rave keyboards that have been carefully dragged through digital murk. One of the sounds, Stargate’s Mikkel S. Eriksen later told The New York Times, is Eriksen’s singing voice, which Blanco stretched and manipulated until it was no longer especially recognizable as a human voice.

As is so often the case with songs like “Diamonds,” the producers made the track, but they weren’t responsible for the lyrics or the vocal melody. For that, they went to a topline writer with a singing career of her own. At the time, Sia Furler had been making music for well over a decade, but she’d only just arrived in the big-money pop universe. We’ll get more into her story in a future column, but here’s the basic outline: Sia, born in Australia, got her start singing for the British downtempo act Zero 7 in the early ’00s. She started releasing her own major-label records soon after, and they got some critical acclaim but made no impact on the pop charts. In the early ’10s, though, Sia became way more prominent as a songwriter-for-hire than she was as an artist, at least back then. This suited her just fine, since she wasn’t especially comfortable seeking mass attention.

Sia was writing for other artists for a long time. She never became an official member of Zero 7, but she was co-writing their tracks as early as 2001. Over the next decade, Sia’s outside-songwriting credits make up a truly random patchwork: British reality singing-show winner Will Young, Flight Of The Concords, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s collaborative album. In 2010, Christina Aguilera, someone who’s been in this column a bunch of times, tapped Sia to work on her Burlesque soundtrack and her Bionic LP, but the movie and album were both flops.

Sia’s pop breakthrough came in 2011, when she wrote a song called “Titanium” for Alicia Keys, someone else who’s been in this column a few times. Keys never recorded the track, but the French dance DJ David Guetta got ahold of the demo. Guetta brought the song to Katy Perry, who passed, and he actually recorded a version of “Titanium” with Mary J. Blige, but that one was never released. Instead, Guetta decided that Sia’s vocal from the demo was the best one. Sia didn’t realize that the song would feature her until it was already out, and she wasn’t happy about it. “Titanium” became an international smash, and it peaked at #7 in the US. (It’s a 6.)

Sia also co-wrote and sang on another fairly anonymous global dance-pop hit, Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones,” which peaked at #5. (It’s a 3.) At the time, Sia’s solo career still hadn’t taken off, and she was planning to retire from public life and just keep working behind the scenes. Sia didn’t really have a persona yet, either as a pop star or a songwriter, and she probably went to work with Stargate and Benny Blanco to help write those dance-pop tracks that they were trying to craft. When Sia was about to walk out the door, though, she heard the “Diamonds” instrumental and immediately started getting ideas.

Stargate’s Tor Erik Hermansen tells Entertainment Weekly that Sia came up with the “Diamonds” demo in the amount of time that it takes me to watch half a Simpsons rerun: “The car was waiting outside. She had her coat on, she had her purse in her lap. We just played her the music, and the first thing out of her mouth was, ‘Shine bright like a diamond.’ She put her vocal down in about 12 minutes while the car was waiting and then left.”

It absolutely tracks that “Diamonds” only took a few minutes to write. It’s a big, starry-eyed love song with lyrics that at least nod toward poetry: “You’re a shooting star I see, a vision of ecstasy/ When you hold me, I’m alive/ We’re like diamonds in the sky.” There’s no specificity to those lyrics. Instead, it’s about the universal feeling of finding yourself in someone else — the sense that the two of you were cosmically fated to find each other, that there’s beauty in your togetherness even if that togetherness doesn’t last. There’s some instinctive first-thought-best-thought intensity to those lyrics, but it’s not what I’d call good writing. If Sia took longer than 12 minutes to write those words, maybe she could’ve nailed the feeling with more precision, or maybe she would’ve lost the sense of inspiration that drove the song in the first place.

Benny Blanco later told Apple Music that he didn’t want to send the “Diamonds” demo to Rihanna. He thought the track would work better for Kanye West or Lana Del Rey, and he apparently did send the demo to Eminem, who recorded over that beat before finding out that his past collaborator Rihanna had already used it. (The Eminem “Diamonds” song has never leaked, and I can’t imagine that it would be any good.) The Stargate guys convinced Blanco that Rihanna should get first dibs on “Diamonds,” and when she got the demo, she listened over and over again. Anyway, the song eventually did get to Kanye West, who recorded a pretty-OK verse for a “Diamonds” remix.

Rihanna took a while to record her own version of “Diamonds,” and she did everything in her power to sound exactly like the Sia demo. Rihanna copied all of Sia’s inflections so closely and studiously that Sia, hearing Rihanna’s version for the first time, thought she was hearing herself. In retrospect, it’s obvious that “Diamonds” is a Sia song. Soon afterward, Sia would become extremely popular by singing that sort of dramatic, emotionally cathartic wailer. Eventually, she’ll be in this column as an artist, not a songwriter. But “Diamonds” also makes a lot of sense as a Rihanna song.

“Diamonds” hits on a lot of the themes that Rihanna’s hits often address: Blind dependence, chemical euphoria, finding yourself utterly lost in a moment. Even the central simile, the diamond shining bright, has plenty of resonance for Rihanna, both through literal jewelry and through the Jay-Z connection that had been part of Rihanna’s story since the very beginning of her career. (More than almost anyone, Rihanna understands how cool it looks to flash the Roc-A-Fella diamond sign onstage.) Around the time that she recorded “Diamonds,” Rihanna had another of her on-again flings with her former abuser Chris Brown, which gave the song’s lyrics a tragic, self-destructive heft that they wouldn’t have had on-paper.

Rihanna sounds awesome on “Diamonds.” When she recorded the demo, Sia probably had the sharp tone of Rihanna’s delivery somewhere in the back of her mind. But Rihanna was also growing as a singer, and she really belts her shit out on “Diamonds.” It’s not a terribly demonstrative style of singing; there are no churchy R&B vocal runs. But Rihanna brings real emotional depth and intensity to those big notes, and she sounds like she believes those words.

“Diamonds” isn’t one of the great Rihanna songs. It doesn’t have the pulse, the energy, of her best work. It’s a little too boring, too leaden. It sounds like Rihanna’s version of a James Bond theme, with all the orchestral maximalism that those things usually demand. But “Diamonds” does sound downright majestic, and when it hits at the right moment, it can raise goosebumps. I was surprised when Rihanna used “Diamonds,” rather than one of her even-huger songs, to end her Super Bowl performance. But when she was up on that floating platform, with fireworks going off all around her, it sounded just right.

“Diamonds” got the same kind of big rollout as every lead Rihanna single — lots of remixes, cinematic video, promotional campaign. Rihanna ramped up to the release of Unapologetic by flying all over the world, playing seven shows in seven nights all over Europe and North America. A bunch of journalists, including at least one of my friends, were on board the chartered Rihanna plane, which started off as a flying party before turning into a boondoggle. At the time, I was slightly jealous of everyone who tagged along, at least until I remembered that I really hate being on planes.

The “Diamonds” video, from regular Rihanna collaborator Anthony Mandler, is less narrative, more vibey. It starts off with Rihanna literally smoking diamonds — rolling the glittery gems up in a blunt wrapper and then lighting it. The clip, like the song itself, is heavy on vague symbolism. We see a fiery riot, a horse running across a desert, Rihanna floating by herself in the ocean. It’s all very pretty and very forgettable.

Predictably, “Diamonds” was a giant global smash that went to #1 in well over a dozen countries. In the US, the song went platinum seven times over, or three million downloads short of “Diamonds” going diamond. The Unapologetic album went triple platinum. The LP is a mixed bag, but it has a few songs that I like way better than “Diamonds.” The record’s other big hit was follow-up single “Stay,” another ballad that Rihanna recorded with the mostly-unknown singer Mikky Ekko. “Stay” is a whole lot sparer than “Diamonds,” and it really shows how affecting Rihanna’s voice had become. (“Stay” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.)

None of the other Unapologetic tracks became huge hits, but some of them continue to loom large among Rihanna fans. “Pour It Up,” an excellently bleary-eyed party song that Rihanna recorded with the ascendant Atlanta rap producer Mike Will Made-It, peaked at #19. “Loveeeeeee Song,” a duet with the great miserable hedonist Future, was never released as a single, but it still peaked at #55. (Future will eventually appear in this column.) I’d take either of those tracks over “Diamonds,” but I still think “Diamonds” is a pretty good song.

When the Unapologetic album cycle wound down, Rihanna did not have another album loaded up and ready to go. Instead, she took more than three years to return with another LP, and that album is her last one to date. In the period between albums, Rihanna released occasional singles that were fated to float out in the world as orphans even though some were legit hits. In 2015, for instance, Rihanna teamed up with Kanye West and Paul McCartney, two people who have been in this column plenty of times, for the weird, great little one-off “FourFiveSeconds,” which went all the way to #4. (It’s a 9.) Later that year, Rihanna came out with the colossally defiant statement-song “Bitch Better Have My Money,” which only reached #15 but which remains iconic within her oeuvre.

“Diamonds” might be a farewell to the kind of exceedingly conventional version of pop stardom that Rihanna built for herself, but it obviously wasn’t the end of her pop stardom. If anything, Rihanna became more famous and more in-demand when she wasn’t constantly on the radio. We’ll see her in this column again.

GRADE: 7/10

Stereogum is an independent, reader-supported publication. Become a VIP Member to view this site without ads and get exclusive content.

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Zola Jesus’ beautifully gothed-out 2012 cover of “Diamonds”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Dan Deacon building a whole experimental symphony out of a lot of pop-song samples — including, most prominently, “Diamonds” — on his 2012 track “Oscillating Diamonds”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jessie Ware singing a gorgeous murmuring version of “Diamonds” during a 2013 visit to the BBC Live Lounge:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the great scene from Céline Sciamma’s 2014 film Girlhood where Karidja Touré and friends share a euphoric moment dancing to “Diamonds”:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Another Benny Blanco production, Kesha’s forget-tomorrow club anthem “Die Young,” peaked at #2 behind “Diamonds.” “Die Young” might’ve gone all the way if it didn’t have the impossibly shitty luck to peak on the charts at the same time that the Sandy Hook school massacre gave the song’s title a brutal, tragic new context, and Kesha quickly attempted to distance herself from the track. It’s still a good song; I say it’s an 8.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books, so shine bright tonight and buy the book here.

more from The Number Ones