Rihanna dropped her first single, "Pon de Replay," in May 2005. In the decade since then Robyn Rihanna Fenty has sold over 41 million albums, had 13 number one songs, and been nominated for dozens of Grammy awards. For five years in a row (from 2008 to 2012), Rihanna released a number one album every single year.
Today, it's obvious that Rihanna is a superstar—everything she touches turns to platinum records. But what's amazing is how early on in Rihanna's career, her rise to power seemed imminent. When I looked back at some early reviews of Rihanna—written in late 2005— critics were already predicting her eventual world take over.
Here are some of the earliest mentions of Rihanna I could dig up in a LexisNexis search:
The first single from Rihanna's debut album Music of the Sun was released in May 2005. "Pon de Replay" had been one of the three songs Rihanna sang on the demo tape that she sent around to labels, and one of the main reasons she got signed in the first place.
The very first review I could find of the single comes from Sterling Clover, who wrote a review of the release in The Village Voice:
'Pon De Replay' has Rihanna's Jay-Z-approved voice chorused, cut, and overdubbed into a room-filling cavalcade of reflexive call and self-response. Rapper A.P. plays Big Tigger to her R.Kelly offering up the generic square-dance calls: "Signal di plane like you tryin' to get captured." I wonder if he knows what bumbaclaat really means, but in the midst of this gleeful chaos (did I mention the synth-simulated air horns? and the mildest hint of macarena?) such concerns hardly seem the point.
Clover's review nestles Rihanna's work within that of her contemporaries. Clover compares Rihanna not only to her "fellow riddim and blues artist Sasha," but also to Gwen Stefani and Missy Elliot. This review is critical of the song, saying that it's generic and uninteresting, but it lands on the point that so many other reviews would also come to: It's undeniably catchy.
By mid-June of 2005, "Pon de Replay" was in the Billboard Top 10 (at number 9) and other publications were scurrying to put together the pieces of who this young Bajan artist was and where her song had come from. For The New York Post, Maxine Shen interviewed the radio DJs who helped launch the song into the Top 10. One of the DJs, KTU's Vic Latino, gave her this quote:
"'Pon de Replay' has got a great summer feel—reggae is synonymous with warm summer temperatures, plus it's got an infectious beat. It's definitely a song you hear once, the hook catches you and you're singing along to it whether you're 8 or 48," says Latino, who picked "Pon De Replay" as his choice for the summer anthem.
This idea that "reggae is synonymous with summer" is one that's stuck around in 2015. Remember OMI's "Cheerleader"? Or last year's "Rude" by Magic!? Rihanna played into that summer heat with her debut single and it helped launch her career.
Rihanna had made enough of an impact with "Pon de Replay" to get a mention in The New York Times a full month before her debut album. Kelefa Sanneh pointed out the inherent contradiction in the song, but didn't have a lot to say about the young star:
Another summer, another aspiring R&B star singing a lightweight pop song over a hopped-up dancehall reggae track. This year it's a Barbados-born rookie named Rihanna (following in the footsteps of Lumidee and Nina Sky), with ''Pon de Replay'' (Island/Def Jam), where she delivers the lyrics in a monotone croon, lightly stepping around the hand-clap beat. And those lyrics form an amusing feedback loop: she spends the refrain asking the D.J. to play the record again (''Come Mr. D.J., song 'pon de replay'') because everyone is dancing, and she spends the verses asking everyone to dance (''Let the bass from the speakers run through your sneakers'') so the D.J. will play the record again.
In the same article, the Times reviewed Beck, Gwen Stefani, and Fall Out Boy. Summer 2005 was a pretty good time for music.
Rihanna was only 17 years old when her debut album was released in August 2005. She hadn't been a child star and seemingly had very few connections in the music world. From USA Today shortly after, came insight to how Rihanna ended up in the spotlight:
"She was signed on the spot after she auditioned for the label's new president and CEO, Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter. "They kept telling us, 'You're not going to leave until you sign,'" she says, giggling. "We just thought they were being aggressive, but they meant it literally. We had to cancel a whole set of meetings with other labels."
Jay Z knew a star when he saw one.
After her album dropped on August 30, 2005, Rihanna's name was everywhere. The number of news articles mentioning her increase exponentially. Soren Baker at the Los Angeles Times interviewed several members of the music industry who backed up what Jay Z saw:
Rihanna, a Barbados-born singer whose music has a Caribbean bent, didn't go overboard on A-list guests either. "Music of the Sun," her debut album, scheduled for an Aug. 30 release, features reggae stars Elephant Man and Vybz Kartel, neither of whom is a mainstream draw for American fans.
Nonetheless, a leading retailer sees tremendous potential for Rihanna.
"That type of music is hot," says Violet Brown, director of urban music for Wherehouse Music. "There is not another female doing it on a major label with major people behind it. This is going to be huge."
"Pon de Replay" hit number one in the United States, and Music of the Sun debuted at number 10 on the Billboard charts. A great achievement at the time—but in the end, it's the-worst performing album in Rihanna's catalog to date. Violet Brown was right. Rihanna would be huge.
First Reviews is a series that finds and evaluates early reviews of now-popular and well-respected artists.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.