Legendary producer LA Reid has worked with the biggest names in music. Think Justin Bieber, TLC, Kanye West, Jay Z, Rihanna and more. In this excerpt from his memoir “Sing to Me,” available now, Reid shares the story of his relationship with Rihanna during a difficult time in her life.
While Justin [Bieber] became a pop artist who successfully blurred the lines with R&B for the Island side, Rihanna experienced similar success with a sound that moved her from R&B to pop for Def Jam. I’d been watching pop and R&B change over the years, but it wasn’t until Rihanna emerged as one of the biggest stars on the label that I came to see just how close to pop it had become and how oversimplified those old categories were.
After we’d signed Rihanna, Jay’s more than capable A&R staff scored a sizable hit on her first album, “Pon de Replay,” one of the songs she’d sang at her audition. After they started work on her second album, Jay’s man Jay Brown came to my office and played me a demo of a song, “SOS,” and I went crazy. That was about all I had to do with her second album, but once that record hit, I paid close attention. I told the A&R people I wanted to hear every song. Before I would have listened to her records only after they were done, but I sensed that she was on the brink, maturing as an artist and also as a person. By the time she went in to record her third album, I saw the opportunity to lift Rihanna to a new level in her career, and with a massive breakthrough only around the corner, she and I started to develop a relationship based on mutual respect and trust.
For her third album, Tricky Stewart and his writing partner, The-Dream, brought us “Umbrella,” a song they’d originally envisioned for Britney Spears until her label rejected the number. They’d also shown it to Mary J. Blige, but the minute Karen Kwak brought the song to me, I knew it was perfect for Rihanna. I had to fight to get the song, but I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Jay Z added a memorable rap to the recording and the song topped the charts for seven straight weeks after it was released in March 2007.
Our relationship really blossomed after “Umbrella.” Rihanna started coming to my office and we would discuss her follow-up. Now that she was officially a superstar, she began to make decisions about her career, communicating more with me about music. From that point forward, I challenged her, and we gradually grew closer and closer, almost like a father-daughter relationship. She is an amazing talent with an extraordinary ear for songs and instinct for her music. One of the few international pop singers since Bob Marley to sing in their native Caribbean dialect, she has a powerful inflection that she doesn’t hide. There’s a freedom in her to live her life and express herself that is incredibly rare, but the more I got to know her, the more I understood that her excitement for life isn’t limited to her art. She has the best taste in everything — from wine to music — and always seems to know what she wants.
I was sitting around my new house in the Hamptons with a couple of my A&R people, smoking some weed and listening to the new Rihanna album in the final stages. When we heard the song “Good Girl Gone Bad,” I knew I had found the title for her album. I had no idea how ironic that would become.
Rihanna invited me to her concert at Staples Center and played me a new song, “Disturbia,” in her dressing room, which I immediately knew would be a smash. We added the cut as a bonus track to the repackaged Good Girl Gone Bad and rushed it out as the next single. I was glad to see her take charge of her own career and that she knew what a hit sounded like.
She was set to perform at the Grammys in February 2009. The producer of the show reached me in my suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel the day before the Grammys. Rihanna had not showed for the rehearsal, he told me. The next phone call came from a publicist who worked for us. “Rihanna just had a car accident,” she said. “That’s all I can tell you right now, but she’s in the hospital.”
As it turned out it wasn’t a car accident, it was her incident with Chris Brown. I never knew much more about what happened than the public did. The details were kept from me. I saw the photos of her battered face the same time everybody else did. I managed to get through to Rihanna at the hospital, but it was a brief conversation. I was able to voice some concern, which I hoped was comforting, but I felt helpless. She was in bad shape and embarrassed, and didn’t want any visitors. All this was happening in her life at the point where she was moving beyond simply being a pop star with some hits into a lady the world cared about. It was tragic.
Several weeks later, her manager called to say Rihanna was coming to New York and wanted to see me, which somewhat surprised me. The fact that she was making my house her first stop in New York showed me that apparently our relationship was stronger than I had realized. It wasn’t until then that I saw just how close we’d become.
She flew into town on a private jet, but the paparazzi still found her. She came straight to my apartment and they swarmed outside my building. I didn’t ask her too much about what happened. We talked mostly about what her next career step would be. I ordered some Caribbean food and we listened to music. I played her a couple of demos, but there wasn’t a lot of talk — most of our communication was telepathic. My only advice to her was to turn to music — it sounded cliché but that was what had gotten me through dark times. She stayed for hours. She already had her own A&R team — which I wasn’t part of, although I was the head of the company. We decided to start working together more.
She had stayed at my house so long, I was late for a meeting with Bon Jovi at a private club up the street. I delicately extricated myself and told her to feel free to stay at my house after I left. Later, Erica told me she stayed another couple of hours.
Sometimes an artist needs help making art, sometimes an artist needs help making a hit, and sometimes an artist just needs help.
“Sing to Me” is available now.