Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
What happens when you bring together one of the most magnetic forces in contemporary pop music with the next big star in the EDM community? As history will tell you, you’ll find love.
2011 was already a great year to be Rihanna: She was hot off of the major success of her Eminem collaboration “Love the Way You Lie,” had charted yet another No. 1 hit with “S&M” and was preparing to release yet another full-length album — her sixth in six years — with Talk That Talk.
Meanwhile, Calvin Harris had made a name for himself across the pond: In the U.K., he frequently dominated the albums and singles charts with his rollicking house tracks. By 2011, the star was quietly riding the early wave of EDM interest in the U.S., hoping to capitalize on the newfound mainstreaming of dance. Having just released his soon-to-be-smash single “Feel So Close,” the then-up-and-comer was on the precipice of blowing up.
But when the two started working together on Rihanna’s Last Girl on Earth tour (Harris opened for her during her Australian leg), sparks immediately began flying. When they got into the studio, they started a raging fire called “We Found Love.”
The track’s premise was simple — a steady, repeating polysynth melody, accompanied by Harris’ flourish of alarms, rising bass and a demolishing drop. The lyrics followed a similar pattern, repeating the same melody with relatively cryptic phrases about “yellow diamonds” and a pulsing “heartbeat in my mind.”
It was the song’s psychedelic music video that helped launch it into international acclaim, where director Melina Matsoukas depicted a drug-addled, abusive love affair, with Rihanna’s co-star bearing more than just a passing resemblance to her former boyfriend Chris Brown. With flashing colors, eye-popping visual flourishes, and a story about a love gone completely wrong, the video took what was already a popular song and skyrocketed it to the top of the charts.
“We Found Love” went on to become both artists’ biggest hit single, and ultimately, one of the most successful singles of all time.Phil Tan, one of the engineers who helped mix the track, had worked with Rihanna on many of her previous hits, including “Don’t Stop the Music,” “Disturbia,” “SOS” and more. But when he first heard “We Found Love,” he says there was something about the track that couldn’t be denied. “Even at first listen it felt like a no-brainer to me,” he says. “I was pretty certain it would be well received.”
Rihanna’s long time collaborator and vocal recorder Marcos Tovar agrees, saying that the song demanded attention from the first time he heard it. “As a general rule, I usually don’t prognosticate future chart positions when listening to songs,” he says. “But with [‘We Found Love’] it was a bit more obvious that it was going to leave a mark.”
Even to this day, “We Found Love” remains as the longest-reigning No. 1 hit for both artists, and eventually served as a jumping-off point for Calvin Harris’ crossover success in the U.S. It also proved that Rihanna had earned her place among the pop pantheon as an artist willing to shift her sound to go after untapped markets.
But the song also served as a partial gateway for EDM’s pop takeover that followed for years after: while the duo certainly didn’t invent the “pop star + house headliner = huge song” formula, they absolutely proved the hypothesis that was later capitalized on by the likes of The Chainsmokers, Avicii, Zedd, Diplo and so many more.
For Tovar, the song managed to balance both worlds of pop and house perfectly in one simple song. “‘We Found Love’ kept the authentic EDM sound and format with compelling lyrics and that blend seemed to work perfectly on the radio, in the clubs, at the gym or pretty much wherever,” he says.
Tan has to admit that he never expected the song to take on quite the life it has. “I certainly wouldn’t have guessed it would remain the biggest hit for them both.” he says. “I think the combination of great energy in the track, relatable, hopeful lyrics and a melody that’s eminently sing along-able is what has made it stand the test of time.”