100 & Single: Rihanna's Post-Millennial Strategy For Setting Chart Records

Categories: Rihanna

Pop-chart record-keeping can be as contentious as baseball's, and we've got quite the steroids-style asterisk forming atop Billboard's Hot 100. On the most recent chart, the most pervasive radio star of the last half-decade brushed past a couple of legends into the hall of fame. And like Barry Bonds after his record-setting 2001 season, she isn't done yet.

I'm talking about Rihanna, who scored her 11th billed credit atop the Hot 100 with the Calvin Harris-produced and supported single "We Found Love." The electro-thumping midtempo track has been America's top-selling single for two weeks now, and another 243,000 downloads sold this past week allows Rihanna to replace Adele's five-week chart-topper "Someone Like You" in the top slot. Even though Adele's torch ballad is the most-played song at radio, and Rihanna's song only ranks seventh in airplay, the huge sales margin for "Found"—topping "Someone" by nearly 100,000 last week—gives Ri the edge.

To put it mildly, the Barbadian pop goddess is on a tear. "Found" is her fourth No. 1 single just in the last 12 months, following last November's "What's My Name" featuring Drake; December's "Only Girl (In the World)"; and this April's "S&M" featuring Britney Spears. That run of smashes (which was broken up by a few lower-charting singles, including the recent Top 10 "Cheers (Drink to That)" and the flops "Man Down" and "California King Bed") has hurtled Rihanna into rarefied chart company.

Career No. 1 hits is one of the biggest chart barometers we have—only major superstars need apply. As recently as the early fall of 2010, before Rihanna started this latest run, her seven chart-toppers placed her in the neighborhood of such estimable pop kings as Phil Collins and George Michael. Now, by scoring her 11th No. 1, Ri has moved past the career totals of Stevie Wonder and Janet Jackson, and she's currently tied with all-time diva Whitney Houston. If she keeps this trend going, she could be surpassing the likes of Madonna, the Supremes and even Michael Jackson within a year or two.

Holy "Umbrella"! How did this happen?

You're probably wondering that, whether you're a passive pop fan or a diehard Top 40 listener. Among the current crop of radio queens, Rihanna is crushing seemingly bigger luminaries like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. And, oh my stars, Beyoncé—isn't she supposed the be the one entering the pantheon of chart deities alongside Diana Ross? How exactly is Rihanna emerging as the chart superstar of our time?

The answer lies in the asterisk, a footnote that helps explain Ri's meteoric rise and makes her the most forward-looking of the chart dominators. She's the ideal artist for the iTunes era of digital pop.

Rihanna's asterisk has to do with featured credits: Among the top 10 holders of No. 1 hits, she's the only artist to have a subordinate credit on any of her chart-toppers. Two, to be exact: T.I.'s 2008 smash "Live Your Life," and Eminem's 2010 megasmash "Love the Way You Lie." Both were "featuring Rihanna"-credited singles, and as far as Billboard is concerned, they count toward her career total. On her other nine bell-ringers, she's in pole position: "S.O.S." (2006), "Umbrella" (2007, featuring Jay-Z), "Take a Bow" (2008), "Disturbia" (2008), "Rude Boy" (2010) and the four hits mentioned above.

Before we dissect whether the two "featuring" singles should diminish Rihanna's achievement, let's run down that all-time top 10 list of artists. Here's the pantheon of penthouse-dwelling pop gods:

The Beatles, 20 U.S. No. 1 hits
Mariah Carey, 18
Elvis Presley, 17
Michael Jackson, 13
Madonna, 12
The Supremes, 12
Whitney Houston, 11
Rihanna, 11
Janet Jackson, 10
Stevie Wonder, 10

How does Rihanna stack up against the above list? Quite well, compared with those who are still ahead of her. From the debut of her first hit, "Pon the Replay" (No. 2, 2005), it's taken her six years and five months to amass her 11 chart-toppers. The Supremes needed about the same amount of time to reach their 11th of 12; Mariah Carey took just under six years to score her first 11. Madonna needed more than a decade, and so did Houston. Michael Jackson required more than two decades, but that's mostly because his first hits came so young. Only speed demons the Beatles and Presley were able to rack up 11 chart-toppers in considerably less time—just under two years for the Fabs, about three and change for Elvis.

More important, Rihanna is hardly the only act on that list who needed some kind of support. Featured credits are more ubiquitous than you'd guess. Even the Beatles had one: the single release of "Get Back" was credited in 1969 to "The Beatles with Billy Preston."

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