February 11, 2012: I have nothing, if I don’t have you. —@rihanna
For Whitney: A memoir.
May 24, 2005: Wind it one time, wind it back once more. —Pon de Replay
I begin my career as a replay artist, so to speak. I am just 16 at the time, an auspicious age. José Martí was arrested for treason at 16: October 21, 1869. Never lived to see Cuban independence. Killed in battle, riding a white horse. That’s how I want to die. You can’t make that shit up.
Barbados remains a colony, and I’ve never been arrested. I’ve become its mascot, honorary Ambassador of Culture and Youth. Prime Minister even declared a Rihanna Day once: February 20, 2008. Parades in the streets, the whole deal. No José Martí Day. You can’t make that shit up.
I am raised by a crack addict. I serve in the cadets. I never graduate high school. I get beat by my boyfriend. I star in Battleship. Wind it back once more.
I sing, replay, Whitney Houston’s “For the Love of Me” for Jay-Z in the Def Jam president’s office, 29th floor. It’s 2004; I am just 16. Jay tells me, “You got two ways out of this room. You sign this contract and you go out that door. Or you don’t sign and you go out through the window.” I made my choice. You can’t make that shit up.
May 6, 2008: In the dark, you can’t see shiny cars. —Umbrella
In the dark, you can’t see six shiny Grammys glimmering on the mahogany mantle, freshly oiled to ward away the creeping rust.
In the dark, you can’t see ten souvenir vials of Rebl Fleur signature fragrance, the aging perfume chemically determined to ferment and bubble and burst from the glass and settle on the floor in fetid little puddles.
In the dark, you can’t see twenty-four wilting roses Whitney sent you in 2011 when you tied her third-place record for number one singles by a female artist (eleven) behind only Madonna (twelve) and Mariah Carey (eighteen), “Congrats, bitch” scrawled in red lipstick on a stained linen napkin laid at the vase’s foot.
In the dark, the crumbling material remnants of your life achievements are not crumbling but nonexistent, not corroded but negated, your mahogany mantle empty of gilded miniature gramophones, of sickly sweet promotional colognes, of dehydrated vegetal sex organs, of the very mantle itself.
November 10, 2009: I live where the sky ends. —Hard
Barbados is 21 miles long and 14 miles wide. I occupy every square inch.
There’s nothing quite like a Barbadian sunset. I don’t mean sentimentally, nostalgically. I’m talking about the cosmos. Geology. Astronomy. Barbados lies on a tectonic fault; the island is a node along the Carribbean spine. When the sun goes down, it skips a beat. If you watch carefully you see it—or rather, you don’t. You extend your forearm and stick out your thumb, each thumb-width marking three minutes till twilight. But the measurement is a lie—not because it’s colloquial, old-wivesy, but because on Barbados, the sun skips a beat, it teleports, it instantaneously falls through the horizon as the Earth rotates and trips over the continental bump. The sky gold; the sky black; the sky ends.
Whitney once came to visit on a sober retreat. “Congrats, bitch,” she purred as she walked off the tarmac. She was holding two dozen roses, an extravagant bouquet. I said to her, “Did you know I sang your song when I was 16, auditioning for Jay-Z for a record deal?” She said, “Can’t be true. You never took nothing from me.” I said, “Yes I did, yes I did, I took it all.” She said, “Well you can keep it. I don’t want it no more.”
We watched the sunset that night. The sun hung fat and gold in the sky like an honorary Ambassador’s medal. I thought, what if it never came back up? Never rose again? I looked over and Whitney was covering her eyes with hands, peeking at the sky between her fingers, weeping. I could have sworn the pockmarks on her arm spelled out Ephemeral.
October 29, 2010: Oh na na, what’s my name? —What’s My Name?
My name is Robyn Rihanna Fenty
Daughter of Ronald Fenty and Monica Braithwaite
Sister of Rorrey Fenty and Rajad Fenty
Lover and ex-lover of Christopher Maurice Brown
Killer of Whitney Elizabeth Houston
Killer of Robyn Rihanna Fenty
September 22, 2011: Shine a light through an open door. —We Found Love
I sing, replay, Whitney Houston’s “For the Love of Me” for Jay-Z in the Def Jam president’s office, 29th floor. It’s 2004; I am just 16. Jay tells me, “You got two ways out of this room. You sign this contract and you go out that door. Or you don’t sign and you go out through the window.” The door creaks ajar; gold light rushes in. The shutters blow open to a hungering black.