There’s a moment towards the end of Rihanna’s game-changing performance of “Bitch Better Have My Money” at last night’s iHeartRadio Music Awards where Bad Girl Ri Ri struts towards the end of the stage, past the shrieking fans set in place for the show’s broadcast. Exuding wealth in a campy yet powerful way via kelly green fur and pleather, Rihanna reaches the end of the platform, where the stage meets banquet tables. She grins. The camera pans out. Nick Jonas applauds.
We can forget this is an industry event. Particularly in lower-tier music awards shows — your American Music Awards, your Billboard Music Awards — the accolades have become an afterthought to elaborate performances. Rihanna is there: looking grown-ass-woman sexy, making fake gunshot sounds like she’s C-Czar from Kroll Show, wearing Spencer Gifts novelty sunglasses, putting her hand up your wife’s YSL sheath in the backseat of her Bugatti, demanding the money — with the patriarchy in the front row.
With her live debut of “Bitch Better Have My Money,” Rihanna came to fire shots at the corporate music machine — and still got paid. The all-around rollout of “Bitch Better Have My Money” has been one of the most provocative career moves she’s made amidst an ongoing transformation from a reliable pop hitmaker à la Katy Perry to an artiste and a tastemaker — one who doesn’t sacrifice creativity for cash or control.
On Thursday, Rihanna premiered “Bitch Better Have My Money” via an app called Dubsmash, where users record and share lip-sync videos. You just know she got a pile of start-up money for that. Then “Bitch Better Have My Money” made its premiere on iHeartRadio/Clear Channel stations that same day, which — while obviously not a big money-making move — is a huge coup even for someone as major as Rihanna, given Clear Channel’s industry-leading listener base (840 stations and about 245 million listeners per month, according to the Washington Post). Exclusive radio premieres generally involve required airplay on all relevant formats, oftentimes with a specified frequency for a certain amount of time.
By Sunday, people had already been turning up to “Bitch Better Have My Money” all weekend, which left Rihanna perfectly primed to steal the show. Madonna and Taylor Swift dueting on “Ghosttown,” a ballad off Madge’s Rebel Heart, are really Rihanna’s only competition. As much as I’m heartened by the unlikeliness of pop’s new Laverne and Shirley, a damn helicopter will always trump an acoustic guitar. Rihanna and her squad of Matrix dancers win the night, even if that night was just a tame self-congratulation ceremony for the major-label system.
Without appearing on Spotify or even officially on YouTube, “Bitch Better Have My Money” went to the top of the iTunes songs chart, where it remains. I imagine we’ll see a big Hot 100 debut for the track later this week. For Ms. 10 Number One singles, I realize this may not seem like that big of a deal. But Rihanna has also never released a song like “Bitch Better Have My Money,” particularly after taking her sweet time to give us new music.
For four straight years starting in 2009, Rihanna albums arrived every November, as reliably as your family’s corny jokes at the Thanksgiving table. Then, 2013 passed, and 2014 too. Rihanna was too busy flexing on Instagram, becoming her most fully realized badass. Along the way, word came that she had left her longtime label home, Def Jam, to reunite with mentor (and onetime Def Jam president) Jay Z, at his Roc Nation management and label. When “FourFiveSeconds” came out in late January, the label listed for the song on iTunes was, “Westbury Road Entertainment distributed by Roc Nation Records.” Since then, there has been talk of who or what exactly Westbury Road is, but the notion is that it’s Rihanna’s Roc Nation imprint.
All signs point to Rihanna being in the creative driver’s seat, more than ever before. “I’ve made a lot of songs that are just really, really big songs. From the jump, they just blow up,” she told MTV of her new, Kanye West-produced album. “Bot that they weren’t real music, but I just wanted to focus on things that felt real, that felt soulful, that felt forever.”
“I wanted songs that I could perform in 15 years; I wanted an album that I could perform in 15 years,” she continued. “Not any songs that were burnt out. I find that when I get on stage now, I don’t want to perform a lot of my songs because they don’t feel like me. So I want to make songs that are timeless.”
The sentiment of “Bitch Better Have My Money” is certainly timeless, but the Deputy-produced single is also exceptionally now-sounding: a cheeky trap track about a black woman’s worth in a man’s world. Even a decade ago, I’m not sure a song as aggressive, and so full of #LeanIn, would have premiered on music’s most corporate stage, commercial radio. Even the pop culture of four years ago — which welcomed Beyoncé’s “eff you, pay me” anthem “Run the World (Girls)” with a tepid peak chart position of No. 29 on the Hot 100 — feels like a different world than 2015.
By critiquing the system while taking full advantage of the platform’s reach — instead of bashing radio like Kanye did while promoting Yeezus — Rihanna games the system. The rollout of “Bitch Better Have My Money” is the most “Bitch Better Have My Money” move Rihanna’s made in a minute. And in proper Ri Ri style, she said it to their faces. Don’t act like you forgot.
Full disclosure: I was previously employed by CBS Radio, a Clear Channel competitor.