Could Rihanna’s Beauty Empire Eclipse Her Musical Legacy?

The hard truth Rihanna fans need to face is that music has taken a back seat in her career - and it may never be her priority again.

Rihanna Fenty

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Rihanna has had a great few years, although that should go without saying — it’s Rihanna after all. The last 12 months, however, have been particularly good for her. But it’s got nothing to do with music.

2018 was the first year since her 2005 debut ‘Pon De Replay’ that she didn’t release any music — no album, no single, no feature. While 2017 saw her drop collaborations with DJ Khaled, Future, Kendrick Lamar and N.E.R.D., Rihanna went full business mode in 2018, and in doing so she clocked a record-breaking year.

Without releasing new music, Forbes estimates that she generated $62 million in wealth last year, making her the 36th highest-paid celebrity of the year. Of all the celebrities on the list marked as a musician, Rihanna is the only one in the top 50 that didn’t release any music.

She shouldn’t really have been on that list as a musician at all. Over the past two years, Robyn Rihanna Fenty has established herself as one of the worlds fastest rising entrepreneurs, led by her juggernaut Fenty Beauty. This year, she launched Fenty, Louis Vuitton’s first new fashion house since 1987.

It’s now been three years since her last album ANTI, and the hard truth her fans need to face is that music has taken a back seat in her career — and it may never be her priority again.

How Has This Happened?

Rihanna could never have launched her brands as effectively without her music career. The Bajan pop star has become one of the most #relatable celebrities on the planet with her ‘no-fucks-given’ attitude, and an obvious distaste of the shiny facade that often comes with the pop star tag.

According to Billboard, Nielsen Music’s N-Score, which tracks celebrities’ endorsement potential and is often looked to by brands when choosing who to link with, ranks Rihanna at 78 — far higher than the average music celebrity. The ‘Stylish’ and ‘Trendsetter’ categories are reportedly where she really pulls ahead. Research by NPD Group found in 2016 that Rihanna fans are 3.7 times more likely to buy her products than fans of other celebs.

Rihanna fans are 3.7 times more likely to buy her products than fans of other celebs.

She proved this when she took on her first significant business role in 2014 as Creative Director for Puma. She went on to launch several Puma x Fenty collections, driven by her sneakers. The first drop sold out in just 35 minutes and in 2016, it was named Sneaker Of The Year by Sneaker News, making her the first female designer to claim the title. When Puma sales rose by 23 percent in 2017, the CEO Bjorn Gulden said Rihanna had made the brand “hot again with new consumers”.

While Puma x Fenty was a success for her, she took her first major risk with an entirely new brand Fenty Beauty. She launched the company in 2017 with luxury goods group LVMH, ushering in a new era of beauty. She told Refinery 29 when it launched: “I…wanted things that girls of all skin tones could fall in love with.” Forty different shades of foundation were offered to consumers, far outweighing the range of other brands.

It worked immediately. Fenty Beauty reportedly made $100 million in sales in its first few weeks and was later named as one of Time’s 25 Best Inventions of 2017. Last year, it generated $570 million and is now estimated by Forbes to be worth more than $3 billion. Rihanna reportedly has a 15 percent stake in the company although she told Time that she has “100 percent involvement” in the process, from conception to packaging.

Then came Fenty x Savage – a lingerie line in collaboration with Techstyle Fashion Group. Similar to the mantra of Fenty Beauty, the range is all about inclusivity, featuring different shades and sizes that go from XS to 3XL. Its first 40-piece collection sold out within a month while the initial drop crashed the online store.

It’s too early to tell how successful her new Fenty luxury line in collaboration with LVMH will be but culturally, it’s already significant. She’s the first woman to build a brand from scratch with LVMH and also the first woman of colour to lead a brand with the fashion house. The clothing also goes up to US14, a rarity for luxury brands.


Rihanna with LVMH Chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault. Photo via Facebook

So What’s Going On With The Music?

At this point, Rihanna is trolling when it comes to new music. Apart from a few comments in interviews, her biggest acknowledgement of her music career has been in memes teasing her hungry fans.

She used to be one of the most consistent feeders in the industry. Between 2005 and 2012 she released seven albums, slowing only for ANTI which she delivered an uncharacteristic four years after previous LP Unapologetic. She’s now edging towards a similar gap between albums as it’s been more than three years since the last record.

There is reportedly music coming though — last year, she teased a reggae album and she’s since insisted that it will be arriving in 2019. Fans suspected that she may have recorded new music for her movie with Donald Glover, Guava Island, but there was nothing. So far, the only details we’ve had about this supposed album is that it’s “fun” and it may feature Pharrell, if his recent Instagram comment is to be believed.

When she’s not trolling, she’s being honest about why the music isn’t coming as fast as it used to. She explained to Interview that her life is now like “a carousel” with her business ventures taking up a large chunk of her time.

Can’t She Do Both?

In the eyes of the public, Rihanna is superwoman. They’ll run to the shops for a new Fenty product only to hit Twitter and beg her for another album when they get home. For most musicians, merchandise and product is a bonus to fans — Ariana Grande’s successful fragrances, for example, are tied to album releases.

Rihanna, however, is different. While she still releases merch with each album drop, her businesses are very much separate to her music — which is her intention. “Every collaboration I did outside of music, I used Fenty so that you didn’t have to hear the word ‘Rihanna’ every time you saw something that I did,” she told the New York Times. “So Rihanna stayed the music, the person. But these other brands are called Fenty.”

“I will work all day in a meeting, leave that meeting at 1 or 2am, and then come home with a tiny group of staff and work until 5, 7am.” — Rihanna

While it’s clear, that line isn’t as clearly distinguished for fans as she probably would like. At the moment, Rihanna is known predominantly as a musician: she’s the fifth most-streamed artist of all time on Spotify, she has the third most number ones on the US Billboard Hottest 100 and she’s won nine Grammys. In the streaming era, most artists are speeding up the rate at which they release music, but Rihanna has slowed down. And that’s because her priorities are changing.

“I will work all day in a meeting, leave that meeting at 1 or 2am, and then come home with a tiny group of staff and work until 5, 7am,” she told Interview. “It’s the reason why an album isn’t being spat out like it used to.”

Whereas music used to be her primary occupation, she’s now splitting her time between building an empire and churning out bops for the fanbase.

It’s likely that her upcoming album — once it does arrive — will prove that she is capable of doing both. It’s just things are going to be slightly different. Recently, she admitted that if she has to drop this project without music videos, she’s going to. This is from one of the youngest recipients of the MTV Vanguard Award, someone who has built an image for herself out of iconic visuals (‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, ‘Umbrella’, ‘We Found Love’).

She’s yet to speak about what her touring schedules will look like from now on, but it will surely be different. Her last tour wrapped up at the tail end of 2016, almost a year before she launched Fenty Beauty.

It’s far from the first time a musician has waved goodbye to recording in favour of business ventures. Dr. Dre launched a successful solo career off the back of N.W.A. with two hip-hop classics The Chronic and 2001, only to spend the following 15 years teasing the follow-up. In that time, he sold his stake in Aftermath records for a reported $35 million and launched Beats by Dre — a headphones company which he sold to Apple for $3 billion. He’s the second richest rapper in the world according to Forbes, despite releasing just one album this decade.

Diddy is the third richest rapper on Forbes list, and he has also made business a priority over music. His Vodka brand Ciroc and holdings in cable network Revolt have generated the majority of his fortune. While he used to release an album every two years, he’s only dropped three this millennium. Despite touring in 2016 with the Big Boy Family Reunion, it’s rare to see him out on tour these days.

We simply have to shift our expectations of Rihanna. She’s no longer that one-album-a-year wonder who gifted us all our best Instagram captions — she’s one of the most successful businesswomen around right now, despite only a few years into her business career.

Rihanna ‘The Musician’ is a giant, but Rihanna ‘The Businesswoman’ is growing taller by the day. It’s a serious possibility that as the rate of music output slows and the rate of product release grows, Rihanna’s greatest legacy could be her achievement in business.

Sam Murphy is a music writer based in Sydney, and Co-Editor of The Interns. Follow him on Twitter