It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
What's left for Rihanna? The young star has far exceeded every conceivable metric of pop success, whether it is awards or album sales or her designation as the most popular person on all of Facebook. The 24-year-old recently released her seventh album, Unapologetic, essentially a cross-section of all pop music's various strains circa 2012. There's the arena-sized electronic buzz of "Phresh Out the Runway" and "Right Now," the over-the-top, funhouse wooziness of "Numb" and "Loveeeeeee Song," the classic pop march of "Diamonds." Its sound is broad and universal, thanks to continent-hopping producers like David Guetta, Stargate, Benny Blanco and The-Dream. This savvy versatility has always been at the heart of Rihanna's appeal, from her dancehall-tinged debut to her present-day attempts to master some kind of global pop template. But Unapologetic's attitude and moods are resolutely her own, and nowhere is this clearer than on "Nobody's Business," the disarmingly buoyant duet with her — to put it mildly — controversial boyfriend Chris Brown. Like many of Rihanna's albums, Unapologetic is a collection of choices that seem both calculated and somewhat eccentric — consider the famously strange week she spent commemorating Unapologetic's release by playing seven shows in seven different cities around the world. In a way, it's those erratic moments that make Rihanna — a new kind of flexible, carefully stage-managed, frighteningly efficient worldwide pop star — still seem human. Everyone knows the names in Rihanna's immediate orbit — her influences Bob Marley and Madonna, her boss Jay-Z, her mates Brown and Drake. Here, we consider the broader constellation of Rihanna — from her lesser-known collaborators to the far-flung, future heirs to her style.
Before Janet Jackson or Madonna — Rihanna's musical influences growing up — there was Grace Jones. The Jamaican-born Jones was one of the most singular artists of the early 1980s, a fashion icon and a visionary of modern-day club music. She had released some well-received disco records throughout the late 1970s, but for 1980's Warm Leatherette, Jones relocated to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to record with the legendary reggae drum-and-bass duo of Sly and Robbie. The result was a breakthrough, a vibrant collision of New Wave and island riddims. Jones recorded two more albums at Compass Point, Nightclubbing and Living My Life. The best material from that period is collected on Private Life. Her alien arrangements of familiar songs (she covers Tom Petty and Smokey Robinson, among others) represented everything fresh about the burgeoning club culture, and the way Jones carried herself — the androgynous style, the almost confrontational raunchiness — was visionary. Rihanna's copped her look on more than one occasion. Don't think Jones doesn't notice these things. Just ask her what she thinks of Lady Gaga.
The Parisian Guetta already had a successful, decade-long career DJing and throwing parties when he finally decided to record his debut album in 2002. It was easy to overlook Guetta, given the acclaim that had met countrymen Daft Punk, Air or Cassius. But Guetta chose a more populist, bombastic approach to French house on Just a Little More Love. It was more vocal driven and club-oriented, its clean sound shaped by massive hooks and friendly throbs. "Give Me Something" was an amped-up version of classic New York disco, while "Can't U Feel the Change" and the title track — both featuring singer Chris Willis — whittled house down to its fist-pumping basics. The most brazen statement here was "Just for One Day," which threw David Bowie's "Heroes" into the middle of an electro-thunderstorm. By the end of the decade, Guetta would be one of dance music's sought-after producers, particularly among those looking for new audiences. In 2010, Guetta and Rihanna collaborated on "Who's That Chick?" for the former's path-breaking One More Love release. They got back together for Unapologetic, cutting the standout "Phresh Out the Runway" and recent hit "Right Now."
One of the high points of Unapologetic is "Stay," a stirring, stripped-down, piano-backed duet between Rihanna and the song's writer, Nashville-by-way-of-everywhere singer Mikky Ekko. Despite his faintly futuristic name, Ekko makes for an unusual collaborator, as evidenced by all the Rihanna devotees wondering who the rumpled vagrant was onstage with her when she performed the song at the Grammys. There's a delicate, rangy confidence to Ekko's songs, and he's equally at ease singing atop a rollicking band, a Clams Casino beat or nothing at all. Check out the Reds EP, which features the gorgeously woozy "Secret to Sell" and the swashbuckling "Who Are You, Really?" After the recent success of "Stay," his label released Tracks, an EP of new tracks and live sessions. It's a startlingly versatile collection. "Pull Me Down" commissions some moody pop triumphalism from Clams Casino while "Feels Like the End" is an epic brew of falsetto, synth and strings. The EP closes with the most intensely atmospheric cover of the xx's "Chained" you'll likely ever hear.
The Charismatic Heir
Rihanna's transition from radio R&B toward global club pop has been massive influential for a new generation of young singer/songwriters, and perhaps the most important lesson to be learned is that the songs themselves still matter. Consider Ellie Goulding's carefully restrained cover of Rihannas' "Only Girl (in the World)," which seems to deconstruct the original's hypnotic grooves and overheated synths and highlight the perfectly proportioned melody at the song's core. From the indie synthpop of 2010's Lights to the cavernous spaces of last year's Halcyon, Goulding has become one of the more charismatic heirs to Rihanna's versatile style. What distinguishes Goulding is that her music, for all its busy, layered production, is quite old-fashioned. YouTube is full of Goulding doing acoustic versions of her own songs, and suddenly singles that sound huge and interplanetary are revealed to be simple and intimate.
The Global Pop Forerunners
Artists like Rihanna, Pitbull and the Black Eyed Peas may be forerunners of a global pop aesthetic, but this kind of thing has been going for years in South Korea. Beyond "Gangnam Style" lies a healthy and rapidly evolving pop scene, and a group like 2NE1 — pronounced "21" or "To Anyone" — is probably one lucky break away from global domination. All the songs on their latest EP feel instantly familiar — there's the hyper absurdism of "I Am the Best," the slightly less hyper anthems "Don't Stop the Music" and "Hate You," the guitar-strum introspection of "Lonely." Maybe a breakthrough isn't as far off as it seems. Korean pop idol-watchers were abuzz with recent news that 2NE1's "baddest female" CL had acquired a famous new follower on Instagram: Rihanna.