How Rihanna's ‘Love On The Brain’ Became the Most Subtly Influential Pop Single of the Past Year

Courtesy Photo
Rihanna in the video for Love On The Brain.

On May 22, 2016 at the Billboard Music Awards, Rihanna stood poised in an ‘80s-style Thierry Mugler fitted-pantsuit, captivating audiences with her unorthodox cool-gal swagger while belting the track at the epicenter of her recent Anti LP, “Love on the Brain.” Despite her captivating wardrobe, it was Rihanna’s tantalizing voice that stole the show -- arguably  her best display of vocal talent on live TV, as the songstress fluttered through the ballad’s various octaves and demanding emotions.

Fittingly enough, the queen of Pop radio would collect the Billboard Chart Achievement Award, as her nine-week reigning No. 1 “Work” sat in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 alongside Ri's Anti follow-up single, “Needed Me.” Largely due to the performance’s undeniable execution, “Love on the Brain” first bowed at No. 83 on the June 11, 2016 issue of the Billboard Hot 100, marking the singer’s 55th entry -- and the beginning of the song's nearly year-long infiltration of pop music and pop culture.

Although the tune would fall off the chart the following week — thanks to continued focus on the eventually No. 7-peaking “Needed Me” — “Love on the Brain” remained ingrained in some of the public’s mind. Later in June, the song would lead Billboard's Top TV Songs chart for the month of May, helped by the dramatic closing four-minute sequence of Grey’s Anatomy’s season 12 finale, where “Love on the Brain” faintly played in the background.

Following all this early promotion, along with the cut being a staple during Rihanna’s Anti World Tour and a highlight of her MTV Video Vanguard Award medleys, "Love on the Brain” finally became an official single on September 27, 2016. The cut was first serviced to rhythmic and hip-hop/R&B radio stations, followed by Top 40 pop and adult contemporary. On the November 12, 2016 issue date of the Hot 100, “Love on the Brain” reentered at No. 80 and climbed slowly from there, becoming the Bajan icon’s landmark 30th top 10 hit on March 4, 2017, finally hitting a No. 5 peak on March 25 — more than a year after Anti’s release in January 2016.

At the time of its release as a single, radio formats were still in the throes of a love affair with Chainsmokers-flavored EDM while phasing out dancehall riddims (noticeably lead by “Work”) in favor of trap-pop bangers. Meanwhile, hip-hop had emerged as the clear sound of the streaming world, which was beginning to dictate the momentum of radio and the charts to an unprecedented degree. In a way, Rihanna releasing “Love on the Brain” so late in the game — despite its early accolades — seemed like a misread of the music climate, just like releasing “Kiss It Better” the same day as “Needed Me” had proven to be for the former. 

Not only that: Adele’s “Hello” seemed to have both opening and immediately shut the door on the big female ballad with its massive surprise release in October 2015. The song was a massive success, debuting at No. 1 on the Hot 100 and helping Adele practically sweep the Grammys, but it would also be the last solo female performance to reach the Hot 100 summit for nearly two years, until Taylor Swift’s highly anticipated, electro-tinged statement single “Look What You Made Me Do” did this summer. As far as slow-tempo ballads with minimalist production went, the retro stylings of Meghan Trainor and John Legend’s duet “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” made for a rare success story, reaching the Top 10 in Dec. 2016, with Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl-promoted power ballad “Million Reasons” following in February of 2017. 

But if there was a challenger to buck these trends, it would be Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain.” It was the single off Anti that has united all demographics, both among her Rihanna Navy and the general public, across genres and ages. Analogous to one of Anti’s motifs of mixing the old with the new, “Love on the Brain” is practically a sonic paradox. It offers a timeless sensibility, as a traditionally pop-friendly ballad with contemporary cadences — its soft doo-wop sway and gently supportive backing vocals juxtapose nicely with Rihanna’s stunted, almost trap-like vocal approach and frank lyrical expletives. The song’s edgy R&B backbone suits urban radio listeners, while the retro factor and Rihanna’s star brand completes pop and adult contemporary needs. 

Another key factor in the song’s magnetic success is its vocal performance and context. If there is a singer apt enough to tackle the heart-wrenching emotional depth of the lyrics, that would be Rihanna. Immediately upon Anti’s release, some critics noted that the chorus lines “It beats me black and blue but it fucks me so good/And I can't get enough” evoked the singer’s past of domestic abuse at the hands of ex Chris Brown, adding additional layers of complexity to the lyric and making it a richer, if sometimes borderline-uncomfortable listen.

In a way, “Love on the Brain” serves as a continuation of the themes of emotional and mental abuse explored on Anti as well as her previous albums, 2012’s Unapologetic and 2009’s Rated R. The mystery of the song’s subject -- which reasonably could have been about Drake, Anti’s only credited guest and her rumored at-the-time boyfriend -- adds to the mystique of the pop star's storied history with romance, which continues to engross media and fans. With Rihanna’s delivery, there’s an earnest sincerity that’s rarely been felt in a ballad since “Hello,” which in itself recalls the theatrical flair of classic '90s ballads like Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” or Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart.” 

The success of “Love on the Brain” on pop radio today is a rare find, because traditional R&B’s presence on the format is an oddity. Earlier this year, we begged the question “does pop radio have an issue with Beyoncé?” -- a star who is on equal footing with Rihanna, sharing the duties of bringing the old sounds and spirit of R&B to the forefront of the mainstream. With the exception of adult R&B radio stations -- which have seen a sweltering rise of superb vocal performance underscored by softer instrumentals, thanks to “Love on the Brain” -- top 40 seems to still have a problem with the genre unless it’s doused in hip-hop production and pop-friendly hooks. Frankly speaking, “Love on the Brain” is not a true hit-factory, pop song — it’s more akin to Etta James or Motown styled soul. 

But post-, the music industry has experienced a prominent surge of retro-harkening balladry, across different musical genres. For traditional R&B, a notable recent example would be Keyshia Cole’s “Incapable,” where the singer flirts with mixing trap 808s beneath the old swing of the ‘60s. Relating the lyrics to her divorce from former NBA player Daniel “Boobie” Gibson, the song accepts the fact that “the one that I thought that I needed was incapable, incapable of needing me back [and] loving like that.” On the Latin front, Romeo Santos and Jessie Reyez dueted on the doo-wop throwback “Un Vuelo A La,” as they sing about splitting up due to a mishandled romance over a waltzing, "Brain"-like beat.

In pop, both Kelly Clarkson — who has covered “Love on the Brain” — and Demi Lovato have expressed newfound appreciation for R&B, incorporating its old school vibes on their respective albums Meaning of Life and Tell Me You Love Me. For Clarkson, “Love on the Brain” cadences can be clearly heard on Meaning bonus cut “Don’t You Pretend,” where the singer waltzes with trumpets and soulful background singers. For Lovato, she packs a punch with “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore,” a brooding vocal showcase in 3/4 time that questions why she’s fallen out of love. In many ways, these qualities can also be heard on her latest single “Tell Me You Love Me,” which indulges more of a gospel-soul funk.

Even as we approach 2018, a random visit to the grocery store could still potentially lead to hearing “Love on the Brain” being played on the radio. What’s eerie about this song’s importance in 2017, is the fact that history looks to be repeating itself: Doo-wop and soul played a major role in soundtracking the ongoing civil rights struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time of Anti’s release, similar battles were -- and still are -- taking place.

This is one reason why the structure of the song resonates with primarily older listeners of adult contemporary and adult R&B formats, as younger listeners of pop and hip-hop identify with its blunt lyricism. It also explains why more artists are seeking out the raw emotional displays of love and the subsequent healing remedies found in traditional R&B. Ultimately “Love on the Brain” serves not only as a testament of a true hit-maker, but a relic of history’s endless cycle. 

Billboard Year in Music 2017