If you were one of the 112 million people who caught Rihanna performing during the 2023 Super Bowl halftime show, it’s likely you appreciated the artist’s grace and talent. But even for someone like RiRi, talent isn’t everything. Sometimes you need a little luck.
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While the award-winning platinum-selling Rihanna is a formidable force in pop culture, she isn’t the only one with sway in the business. Before even Rihanna was walking platforms while pregnant atop the football field, Britney Spears was releasing pop hits and doing it again (oops!). As such, she had her pick of the best offerings. Sometimes, though, hits fall through the cracks.
To get a song sung, recorded, and performed by Spears is an all-time honor for most songwriters. A dream come true. It could be the path to a life of luxury, given the right song. So when it’s rejected by her, all might seem to be lost. But for the songwriters of “Umbrella,” a track Spears actually passed on, they got some good luck with who picked it up.
In 2007, Spears was looking for songs for her forthcoming LP, Blackout. That’s when “Umbrella” came across her desk, with songwriters Kuk Harrell, The-Dream and Christopher Stewart having her in mind for the number. Around this time, Spears was having personal problems that were becoming rather public and Stewart thought a new hit like “Umbrella” could help her rehabilitation. But when her management got the song, they ultimately rejected it, thinking they had enough tracks for the new record.
Remember: for years, Spears was not only enduring personal issues but she was also under the control of her father, involuntarily placed in a conservatorship, unable to make most of her professional decisions. So, Spears didn’t even have the chance to review the track. This wasn’t the only big single Spears and team passed on, others were “Milkshake” by Kelis and “Telephone” by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.
Mary J. Blige
Next up for the track was Mary J. Blige, the Godmother of Soul and another recent Super Bowl performer. Blige, at the time recently Grammy nominated and inundated with press and responsibilities for that, also passed. She’d had the stipulation in her contract with her record company that for them to accept any song on her behalf, she’d have the final say. But with her obligations for the awards show, she didn’t have the time. In her defense, she also wasn’t working on a new record.
Well, the third time’s the charm.
Good Girl Gone Bad
Rihanna got the song next and took to it. She was the beneficiary of smart management—namely, Island Def Jam chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who was also a friend of Stewart’s. Reid made Stewart and the other songwriters a deal they could not pass up. The three writers also knew RiRi had an album coming up and the song would be in good hands.
RiRi has since turned it into a multi-billion streamed track. It was the song that put her on the map, in many ways. Rihanna released the song on her third studio album, Good Girl Gone Bad. “When the demo first started playing, I was like, ‘This is interesting, this is weird,’ said RiRi at the time of hearing the track. … But the song kept getting better. I listened to it over and over. I said, ‘I need this record. I want to record it tomorrow.'”
Rihanna did record it and it featured Jay-Z. It was a No. 1 hit on the Billboard chart for seven weeks. Not bad.
Spears, A.I. and Final Thoughts
One can’t help but wonder: how would the song have sounded if Spears performed it? Well, now that we think about it, we’ll probably find out via A.I. in about four days.
It’s also interesting to see these machinations of the business. “Umbrella” was such a hit for Rihanna, it makes one wonder how can management live with itself for losing out on such songs. But that’s the business. A little rain always must fall.
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