Rihanna
Rihanna
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The 30 Defining Moments of Rihanna's Career

by Billboard Staff
February 20, 2018, 1:22pm EST

It may seem sort of impossible that Rihanna is turning 30 years old today (Feb. 20), as she's already been an essential part of our lives for about half that long. Since breaking through internationally as a 17-year-old pop star in 2005, the Barbadian multi-threat has expanded her dominance from top 40 radio to film, TV, fashion, art, charity and Twitter shade, and enters her thirties as one of the most beloved entertainers on the planet. Here are the 30 biggest moments that have defined her singular career along the way. 

Signs with Def Jam (2005)

In early 2005, a then-16-year-old Rihanna traveled from Barbados to New York to audition for JAY-Z and Antonio "L.A." Reid at Def Jam's office. She sang a Whitney Houston cover ("For the Love of You") and two originals -- one of which, "Pon de Replay," convinced JAY of the teenage singer's star potential. "There's only two ways out [of the office]," Rihanna later remembered the rap legend telling her while waiting for their lawyers to draw up the contractual paperwork. "Out the door after you sign this deal -- or through this window." Ri opted for the former, and one of the most successful artist-label partnerships of the century was born. -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER​

Debuts with "Pon de Replay" and Music of the Sun (2005)

While Rihanna’s debut album Music of the Sun may fade into the back of her larger discography now, breakthrough hit “Pon De Replay” is something no Rihanna fan will soon forget. The music video for the dancehall crossover smash, which now sits with somewhere around 93 million views on YouTube, had Rihanna at her teenage best, wearing low-rise baggy jeans and a sequin top, dancing atop a platform in a hilariously well-lit club. The single, which climbed all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, was an easy intro into the decade of island-inspired dance hits that were to follow. -- NATALIE MAHER

Scores first Hot 100 No. 1 with "S.O.S." (2006)

Fittingly released on Valentine’s Day in 2006, the first single off the ingénue’s sophomore LP, A Girl Like Me, quickly hypnotized the world with a slew of chorus “la-la-la’s," flipped over the synth-pop beeps of Soft Cell’s 1981 new wave staple, “Tainted Love.” The song -- expressing an “obsessive” crush -- reached the summit of the Hot 100 in May of that year, staying there for three consecutive weeks. She'd score many subsequent hits to prove herself an international-pop-force to be reckoned with, but “S.O.S.” was the earliest undeniable evidence. -- DA'SHAN SMITH

Goes next-level with "Umbrella" (2007)

When the JAY-Z featuring "Umbrella" (ella-ella, eh-eh-eh) dropped in 2007, Rihanna already had two albums and four top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hits under her belt. But for a burgeoning pop icon, she was short just one thing: An instantly iconic pop smash that would prove she was in it for the long game. "Umbrella" was that ubiquitous smash, an inescapable hit that hit No. 1, soundtracked the summer of 2017 and introduced Bad Gal RiRi to your mom, dad, grandma, grandpa…basically, anyone with a set of ears. -- JOE LYNCH

States her "Black Madonna" ambition (2007)

One of the most buzzworthy quotes ever uttered in an interview from the superstar: At the time, it simply read as ambitious chatter for Paper magazine, from a nineteen-year-old enjoying unprecedented international success. Ultimately, throughout the years, the line took on a greater meaning: Not only has Rihanna finessed her career to follow the footsteps of her idol, she shaped it into her own iconicity, while simultaneously projecting her cultural identity front and center, to influence multiple industries. At this point, the facts of the comparison speak for themselves. -- D.S.

Performs "Umbrella" at the VMAs with Chris Brown (2007)

In the late '00s, Rihanna was half of the most exciting young power couple in pop music, a status the two cemented with a show-stopping performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2007. The gig mostly belonged to Chris Brown, demonstrating his triple-threat-dom through a medley performance that included a run through his chart-topping "Kiss Kiss" and a dance breakdown to "Billie Jean," but was stolen by Rih's cameo, showing up to run through the then-already-iconic "Umbrella" first verse and chorus. The couple wouldn't last, obviously, but Rihanna's VMAs dominance would: She's won video of the year twice, and received the Video Vanguard lifetime achievement award in 2016. -- A.U.

Wins her first Grammy (2008)

In 2007, Rihanna scored her first nominations at the Grammy Awards, as well as her first win, for best rap/sung collobration. The significance of winning an award on music's biggest night needs no explanation, but there is something to be said of scoring one alongside now-21-time winner Jay-Z as a first time nominee: It signified Rihanna’s long-term staying power, and marked industry-acceptance, pushing “Umbrella” from a simple radio smash into an enduring pop classic for the ages. -- N.M.

Reloads Good Girl Gone Bad with two more No. 1s (2008)

Rihanna's third album, Good Girl Gone Bad, was unquestionably a blockbuster, spawning four Hot 100 top 20 hits (including the chart-topping "Umbrella"), and ultimately being certified 5x Platinum by the RIAA. But RiRi wasn't done there: In the peak age of deluxe edition reissues, Good Girl was revamped a year later with a Reloaded edition, which added three new songs to the track list -- two of which, the Stargate-produced ballad "Take a Bow" and the storming Chris Brown co-write "Disturbia," followed "Umbrella" to the Hot 100's apex, proving that even Ri's bonus cuts were more potent than any of her pop peers' A material in 2008. -- A.U.

Tops Hot 100 as featured artist on T.I.'s "Live Your Life" (2008)

In 2018, Rihanna as the hook singer on a rap song has become such an exhausted notion that artists like Kendrick and Pharrell have learned to just give her a full verse on songs like "Loyalty" and "Lemon." But a decade earlier, securing a hook on a T.I. song was the stamp of a certified pop star, and "Live Your Life" was the singer's first featured appearance on a big-time smash. T.I. and RiRi sounded like an updated Ja Rule and Ashanti, fusing the best parts of pop and dance with hip-hop and R&B. Its catchy hook, punctuated with the sing-along “ayea, ayea, ayea,” brought "Life" to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart just a week after its debut. -- N.M.

Domestic abuse inspires a Rated R masterpiece (2009)

While promoting her edgy fourth album, 2009’s Rated R, Rihanna relived the traumatic horror of her violent car ride with Chris Brown on the night before the '09 Grammys, in a 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer. At its end, she’d dramatically advise “F--k love … love is so blind” -- a sentiment felt throughout the autobiographical template of darker, complex emotions on the album in question.

Rated R intro “Mad House” set the tone on the LP for an explicit love tragedy, before transitioning into RiRi’s signature phrase “I’m such a phuckin’ lady” on “Wait Your Turn.” Top 10 singles “Hard” showcased a cocky rapping persona, while cocked guns and pulse-racing chorus of “Russian Roulette” emphasized the singer’s knack for dramatic balladry. Rated R’s twists and turns also showcased genre fluidity -- particularly in the dubstep of Navy-saluting “G4L” and the latin-pop simmer of “Te Amo” -- but it was her true roots in the dance hall of “Rude Boy” that dutty-whined atop the Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks. -- D.S.

Teams up with Eminem for "Love The Way You Lie" (2010) 

Two artists who know a thing or two about toxic relationships, Eminem and Rihanna scored one of the biggest hits of either's career by pairing for "Love the Way You Lie," an amour fou hip-hop ballad with a knockout RiRi chorus. The song spent seven weeks atop the Hot 100, establishing a partnership that would continue throughout the decade -- which resulted in both a second No. 1 collaboration ("The Monster") and an ensuing sellout co-headlining tour -- and ensuring that both stars would enter the '10s still at their commercial peak. -- A.U.

Works with Drake for the first time on "What's My Name?" (2010)

Fans went predictably nuts in 2010 when, mere months after being spotted making out at a Lucky Strike, Rihanna and Drake debuted their first collab -- and a particularly steamy number, no less. The bubbly, dancehall-flavored “What’s My Name,” where Rihanna breezes through confident, euphemism-laced verses and a blushing Drake tries to do math, would go on to top the Billboard Hot 100 and snag a Grammy nomination -- not to mention kicking off a creative relationship that would bring later us smashes like “Take Care” and “Work." -- TATIANA CIRISANO

Plays halftime at the 2011 NBA All-Star Game (2011)

To date, the Super Bowl still hasn't had the good sense (or fortune) to book Rihanna for the most-watched gig on television, but the NBA smartly grabbed her for the second-biggest halftime gig of the year in 2011, when she played at the break of the All-Star Game in Los Angeles. Her performance was of course blistering, and aided by two extremely high-profile guests: Kanye West, who performed then-single "All of the Lights," and of course, Drake, who wished the singer a happy birthday in the midst of their "What's My Name" collab. We haven't seen that kind of star power on the NBA stage since -- a point rubbed in by the lack of a Bad Gal cameo this past weekend during N.E.R.D.'s performance of the RiRi-featuring "Lemon" at this year's All-Star halftime. -- A.U.

Wishes Ciara “Good luck with bookin that stage u speak of" (2011)

Part of Rihanna’s allure is that she has somehow struck a simultaneous balance of otherworldliness and down-to-earth-ness. And really, what’s more relatable than some Twitter shade? After Ciara said Rihanna “wasn’t the nicest” on a 2011 episode of E!’s Fashion Police, the two got into it on Twitter. Ciara told her, “Trust me Rhianna u dont want to see me on or off the stage,” to which Rihanna replied (among other things), “Good luck with bookin that stage u speak of.” A truly iconic Twitter moment, and the mark of a true social media queen. -- N.M.

Reinvents herself with “We Found Love” single and music video (2011)

Eight years since its release, Calvin Harris’ EDM-splashed hit “We Found Love” featuring Rihanna still instantly brings to mind images of BadGal rocking out at raves, writhing in a grimy bathtub and letting a lover tattoo her backside -- much thanks to the track’s phenomenal music video, which snagged a VMA for video of the year. At the time, many fans connected the visual’s abuse-ridden love story between two addicts to Rih’s ill-fated relationship with Chris Brown, making her character’s decision to leave her companion by the final scene all the more triumphant. Drawing comparisons to Trainspotting and even Requiem for a Dream in its short film-like style and drug-related content, it remains one of the best and most memorable video performances of Rihanna’s career. -- T.C.

Sparks fashion debate on the cover of Rolling Stone (2011)

Of all of Rihanna's many headline-grabbing magazine covers of the past decade, perhaps none drew more attention than her appearance for Rolling Stone's "Rihanna Strikes Back" cover story in '11, where the pop star displayed a fiery, frizzy red hairdo, a white tanktop and what appeared to be jean shorts in the midst of disintegration. The subject of what exactly Rih was wearing was the subject of much discussion, until stylist B. Akerlund confirmed that they were metal mesh shorts, inspired by "if Rihanna and Kid Rock had a baby." -- A.U.

Earns her first album of the year nomination at the Grammys (2012)

Boasting a red hairdo, a newly triumphant attitude, and a collection of colorful bops meant for the dance floor, the superstar managed to capture three Hot 100 No. 1 hits with fifth studio album Loud: her “What’s My Name” duet with Drake, which bounced to the top spot a week prior to storming lead single “Only Girl" doing the same, and the frisky "S&M," which was catapulted to the top in large part thanks to a headline-grabbing remix with Britney Spears. Most impressively, Loud earned a 2012 Grammy nom for the marquee prize of album of the year -- Rih's first, and to date, only such nomination -- though she already had a new album out (2011's Talk That Talk) by the time she ended up losing to Adele's 21. -- D.S.

Makes big-screen bow in Battleship (2012)

You wouldn't expect a movie based on a board game to be great, and in the case of 2012's Battleship, you would be correct. While Rihanna inauspiciously debuted in a critically panned action movie, it served as a jumping off point for a series of fascinating acting gigs since then: She appeared in the fantastical sci-fi epic Valerian and the City of Thousand Planets, played the iconic role of Marian Crane in the Bates Motel TV show, and she'll rub elbows with Oscar winners Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway in the upcoming Ocean's 8. -- J.L.

Takes the media for a ride on 777 Unapologetic mini-tour (2012)

Jet-setting to tour 7 separate cities, in 7 different countries, in one 7-day span seemed to be a media nightmare for all involved except for Rih. Although the press recalled a negative experience from the much-blogged #RihannaPlane mishap, it did little to hinder the singer’s seventh studio album, Unapologetic, becoming her first LP to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart -- while lead single, “Diamonds,” simultaneously shined bright on top of the Hot 100. BadGalRiRi lived up to her moniker, and had a record full of jams to back it up: including the stripper rebuttal “Pour It Up,” alongside Future collab “Loveeeeeee Song,” and the Victoria’s Secret-slaying “Phresh Out The Runway.” -- D.S.

Founds the Clara Lionel Foundation (2012)

In 2012, Rihanna started the Clara Lionel Foundation, a nonprofit named in honor of her grandparents (Clara and Lionel Braithwaite) that benefits healthcare and education in impoverished communities and also awards college scholarships in the United States. In 2014, Rihanna, started holding her near-annual Diamond Ball galas to raise money for the foundation; special guests have included Lionel Richie, Kendrick Lamar, Dave Chappelle and Brad Pitt. -- J.L.

Wins the American Music Awards' first Icon Award (2013)

In 2013, Rihanna accepted the first-ever Icon Award from the American Music Awards – with her mother, Monica Braithwaite, presenting it to her (awwww). Of course, people raised eyebrows at a twenty-something pop star getting a career retrospective award not even 10 years into her career, but hey, you can argue with the timing, but you can't deny that Rihanna established herself as a pop music GOAT by an age where most of us are still figuring out what the hell we're doing with our lives. -- J.L.

Becomes a CFDA icon in Swavorksi crystals (2014)

“Do my tits bother you? They’re covered in Swavorksi crystals, girl!” responded the 2014 Fashion Icon honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Rihanna stunned attendees with a sheer gown embellished by the luxurious diamonds -- living up to the mantras of personal icons Josephine Baker and Maya Angelou. The fashion moment came off the heels of an instigated #FreeTheNipple campaign, after Instagram accidentally banned her account following a post of a topless Lui magazine cover story. During her acceptance speech, the icon acknowledged her rule-breaking in style, noting of the attitude she held towards competition since she was a child: “She can beat me, but she can not beat my outfit!” -- D.S.

Owns MET Gala as best dressed (2015)

If there’s any major red carpet event where everyone waits bated breath for Rihanna’s appearance, it’s the annual MET Gala. Following up her 2014 CFDA moment, no one was able to “beat [her] outfit” during 2015’s themed exhibition of “China Through The Looking Glass.” The meme-able yellow silk, robe gown took two years for Chinese couturier Guo Pei to design. For 2017’s MET tribute to Comme des Garçons, the singer again shut down the red carpet, being hailed as one of the only attendees who actually executed the theme properly. As RiRi’s set to host this year’s “Heavenly Bodies” gala, the public has to wonder how she can possibly still top herself. -- D.S.

Thrives through a rocky Anti rollout (2016)

Throughout her musical trajectory, Rihanna has built a reputation as going against the grain of what’s going on in the pop sphere, and the music industry as a whole. It was only suitable that her eighth studio album, 2016’s Anti, reflected that in the most bizarre, oft-chaotic, and minimalistic way -- arguably providing the pop legend her artistic magnum opus. At the time of its release, most acknowledged their confusion with the record (prompted by a Samsung ANTIdiaRy virtual app, and three promo singles that didn’t make the final cut), and some even prematurely dismissed it as an early flop. But historic stats and impact don’t lie, with the album spawning three top ten Hot 100 hits (including the chart-topping Drake collab "Work"), and ranked as the top album by a female artist in Billboard's 2017 year-end albums list, despite being released in early '16. -- D.S.

Becomes a beauty innovator & Puma fashion mogul (2016)

In December 2014, sportswear brand Puma announced that Rihanna would be their celebrity ambassador and creative director. That role resulted in the leading woman of Fenty Corp, designing for the German line to manifest the Fenty x Puma collection. An immediate staple in the fashion circuit since 2016, the line’s varying seasons of fresh shoes and clothes have since brought the world award-winning suede Creepers, fur sliders, and haute-couture spins on athletic jumpsuits and hoodies. (Not to mention four out-of-this-world runway shows reflecting hip ready-to-wear themes.) In 2017, Fenty Corp brought more inclusive diversity to the make-up industry with a Sephora union, aptly titled Fenty Beauty. With futuristic and “Saw-C” takes on highlighters, lipsticks, primers, and 40 shades of foundation, Fenty Beauty earned $72 million in its first month, and was named one of Time’s “Best Inventions In 2017.” -- D.S.

Presented the Video Vanguard lifetime achievement award at the VMAs (2016)

In 2016, the MTV Music Video Awards belonged to no one but Rihanna, and not even Drake could change that. The singer took home the prestigious MTV Video Vanguard Award, and to mark the occasion, she gave four distinct performances throughout the night: one for her sophisticated ballads, one for her dance hits, one for her trap bangers and one for her island-inspired bops. But maybe most importantly, the awards gave us the curve of the century, as Rihanna swerved her head hard when presenter Drizzy (and rumored one-time beau) tried to kiss her as she came on stage, giving n us female empowerment and a lifetime of meme material in one simple movement. -- N.M.

Owns the summer with "Wild Thoughts" (2017)

The hits had barely dried up from 2016's Anti when Rih returned with a starring turn (alongside an easily overshadowed Bryson Tiller) on DJ Khaled's "Wild Thoughts" single. The song was quintessential casual Rihanna cool, and with an assist from a well-timed Santana lift, it became a No. 2 hit on the Hot 100 in July 2017 -- not only proving that Rihanna can cameo her way back to pop's center whenever she wants to, but thankfully ending an unfortunate streak of female artists being totally absent from the chart's top five. -- A.U.

Receives Harvard humanitarian of the year award (2017)

It’s no secret that Rihanna has a giving streak. The star is involved in a number of philanthropic efforts, from building a state-of-the-art breast cancer treatment center in her native Barbados to launching her Clara Lionel Foundation scholarship program, serving as global ambassador for the Global Partnership for Education and, as of late, calling out world leaders on Twitter. Even Harvard University took notice last year, honoring the singer with its annual Humanitarian of the Year award. Rih’s acceptance speech? As on-brand as ever, the singer responded with a hair-flip. Legend. -- T.C.

Crowns Billboard's all-time Pop Songs chart (2017)

Stans of all ages, and artists, love to argue that their fave is “the main” -- especially in pop music. On October 19, 2017, the Rihanna Navy rejoiced when Billboard announced that 25 years after the conception of the Pop Songs radio airplay chart, their leader ruled as the all-time No. 1 artist. Starting off with her 2005 debut, “Pon de Replay,” the Bajan superstar earned 30 top 10 singles and 11 No. 1s in just half the time of the chart’s existence -- edging out megastars like P!nk, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake and yes, Madonna. The most impressive part: She did this all before she turned 30. -- D.S.

Gets hometown street in Barbados Rih-named (2017)

Rihanna has never stopped showing love for her native Barbados, whether through her island-influenced sound or projects like founding a scholarship program for local students. The feeling is mutual: On the country’s independence day (Nov. 30) last year, the prime minister himself held a ceremony renaming the street the star grew up on from Westbury New Road to Rihanna Drive. “It takes a village,” Rih beamed in an Instagram post commemorating the event, “and I’m glad my village was you.” -- T.C.