When Rihanna met Jay-Z

Superstar singer, actress and fashion designer Rihanna has fond memories of how her career began, at the age of 17.

The 33-year-old pop icon is expecting her first child with American rapper A$AP Rocky, also 33. Her life today is a far cry from when she auditioned as a shy teenager for Def Jam records in 2005.

The daughter of warehouse supervisor Ronald and accountant Monica Fenty, she sold clothes with her father on a stall on the street as a youngster. Today, she is worth an estimated £1.2 billion and has had 14 number one singles in the US. She has won 13 American Music Awards, 12 Billboard Music Awards and nine Grammy Awards.

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She supports many humanitarian causes and has founded the non-profit organisation Clara Lionel Foundation to fund education and emergency response programmes all over the world. She has launched her own cosmetics brand Fenty Beauty and the fashion house Fenty. She has also starred in hit films such as Battleship, Ocean’s 8 and Home.

Path to stardom

Born in Saint Michael, Barbados, in 1988, Rihanna formed a girl group with two school friends in 2003, but they didn’t have a name, or any original material. Later, she managed to land an audition with visiting US record producer Evan Rogers. She sang cover versions of Destiny’s Child’s Emotion and Mariah Carey’s Hero.

Rogers realised Rihanna had star quality. With her mother’s permission, he invited her to America to record some demo tapes to send to record labels. This took about a year, as she was still going to school in between recording. She recorded The Last Time and Pon de Replay on the demo, which was sent to Def Jam Recordings.

At the time, successful US rapper Jay-Z had recently been appointed as the record label’s president and CEO. He was reportedly not 100% sure Rihanna had star quality when he first heard her demo tape. He felt she had taken on too much recording a big song like The Last Time.

Meeting in person

Years later, in an interview in November 2021, his A&R man at the time, New York DJ Cipha Sounds, said Jay-Z was in two minds about signing Rihanna on the strength of the demo tape. However, Sounds persuaded him to give her a chance, although he said it turned into an argument with Jay-Z, who remained unconvinced.

The following day, when Rihanna met Jay-Z in person, he did a complete U-turn. He realised what amazing star quality she had when he heard her live audition.

Rihanna described the eventful day in a post on her Instagram account, when she reflected on her career. She said it “felt like yesterday” when she stood “shaking in the hallways” of Def Jam records waiting for her audition for Jay-Z.

Very shy at the time, she felt awestruck to be standing in front of the star. She had butterflies and admitted to being “star-struck”.

Rihanna performed several songs, including Pon de Replay, for Jay-Z for her audition. She felt it had gone well, as Jay-Z wouldn’t let her leave ‘til she had signed the recording contract, which she found “very flattering”. She joked, “The label locked me into the office ‘til 3 am!”

Hit records

After signing with Def Jam in 2005, Rihanna shot to stardom almost overnight. Her debut single in May 2005, Pon de Replay, charted successfully worldwide, reaching the top five in 15 countries, including number two in the US Billboard Hot 100 chart and the UK singles chart.

Rihanna has enjoyed a succession of hit records including Umbrella, Diamonds and Rude Boy, to name but a few. A collaboration with Jay-Z, Umbrella won the Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.

Rihanna and Jay-Z became friends and have collaborated on numerous projects since their first meeting. She featured on Jay-Z’s Run This Town, the second single from his studio album, The Blueprint 3.

To help people after the devastating Haiti earthquake of 2010; she recorded Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour) with Jay-Z, Bono and The Edge for the fundraising campaign. The same year, Rihanna joined Jay-Z’s new venture, Roc Nation Management.

Her single, We Found Love, in 2011 topped the charts in 27 countries. It became the longest-running number one US single of 2011 and the 24th biggest hit of all time on the Billboard Hot 100. Rihanna’s next single, You Da One, featured Jay-Z and was also a hit.

In March 2015, it was announced Rihanna was a co-owner in the music streaming service, Tidal. Jay-Z had acquired Aspiro, the parent company of Tidal, in the first quarter of 2015.

Rihanna has sold more than 18 million singles and six million albums in the UK alone. She is second to only the Beatles for achieving the most million-selling singles of all time in the UK.

Today, Jay-Z has won 23 Grammy Awards, the most ever achieved by a rapper, and was ranked as one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by Billboard and Rolling Stone. The first rapper honoured in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, he is also the first solo rapper in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Without the in-person meeting between Rihanna and Jay-Z and their subsequent collaboration, both their careers might have taken quite a different turn. Never underestimate the power of a face-to-face meeting!

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