In January 2016, when Rihanna released her most recent album, the eclectic, intimate “Anti,” Barack Obama was president, Prince was still alive and TikTok did not yet exist.
Rihanna, once one of pop’s most reliable hitmakers and the star of Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show, has since been busy with highly successful beauty and fashion companies and became, according to Forbes, the youngest self-made female billionaire. She has occasionally featured on other artists’ songs and recorded two tracks for the “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” soundtrack. But the release date of her next album has been pushed back in perpetuity.
Rihanna, a social media natural, has been particularly adept at playing along with fans’ agonizing waiting game. Pining for “R9” (as her next LP is known) has gradually transformed from an earnest desire to an internet punchline to a chronic existential condition — the “Waiting for Godot” of pop music.
But the bottom line is more serious: Because of the length of Rihanna’s hiatus, the stakes for her return keep growing. For a star with 14 No. 1 tracks on Billboard’s Hot 100 — and 63 songs on the chart to date — a middling return could be tantamount to a flop.
Rihanna has been pop’s poster girl of prolonged hiatus for so long that it’s easy to forget she used to be an emblem of its opposite: the grind of relentless productivity. In the eight years from 2005 to 2012, she released a staggering seven albums. All of them went at least platinum. When her saucy “S&M” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in April 2011, she set the record for the fastest solo artist to rack up 10 No. 1 singles. Only the Beatles did it quicker.
In her time away from music, Rihanna has provided enough fan service to keep the flame glowing, without actually revealing much. Her mystique has ballooned in absentia, allowing people to project onto her seemingly contradictory ideas. She is everything to everyone, the exception to every rule.
In its current, hypothetical state, “R9” is perfect. It could be (as she hinted years ago now) an uncompromisingly sprawling reggae album. Perhaps it’s a tight, no-filler return to Rihanna’s days of aerodynamically engineered pop bangers. Maybe the guest list is stacked; maybe the album has no features at all. It’s everything to everyone, because it is not yet anything at all.
Her Super Bowl performance, too, is currently charged with a similar sense of dazzling possibility. Will Rihanna’s live comeback be a tantalizing introduction to her next era, or a nostalgic look back at her history-making hits that leaves people wanting more? All that’s left to do is, well, exactly what we’ve been doing all along: wait (a little longer) for Rihanna.