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Five Burning Questions: Rihanna Debuts at No. 2 on Hot 100 With “Lift Me Up”

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The wait is over: Rihanna is back with a new solo single. We hadn’t heard new music from the global superstar outside of a spare feature here and there since the ANTI era in 2016, but now there’s Rih’s new ballad “Lift Me Up,” from the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack, written partly in tribute to the late franchise star Chadwick Boseman.

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This week, the song debuts at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, held off from the top spot by Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” (lead single from her juggernaut Midnights album). It’s also the best-starting radio single of Rihanna’s career, debuting at No. 6 on Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart.

How should Rihanna feel about this chart start? And what can fans expect from her from here? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. Rihanna’s first new single in six years just misses becoming her 15th Hot 100 No. 1, debuting at No. 2 behind Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” in the latter’s second week. On a scale of 1-10, how excited do you think she should be with this showing?

Lyndsey Havens: 10. Debuting at No. 2 with a Taylor Swift song — from a record-breaking album — is basically like debuting at No. 1. Especially considering, though beautiful, “Lift Me Up” is a fairly minimal, downtempo ballad it’s even more impressive to know it debuted this high on the strength of Rihanna’s name and voice alone.

Cydney Lee: 9 or 10, only because I feel like any artist should be excited about an accomplishment or win, no matter how big or small or what caliber of artist they are. Clearly, garnering No. 1 hits is a norm for Rihanna, but considering how long it’s been since she dropped music, debuting at No. 2 after all these years shows she still has it. One thing about Rihanna that separates her from the rest is that she’s managed to stay relevant despite not dropping any music, thanks to her other business ventures and showing up her for fans in ways other artists don’t. Not to mention maintaining a very public relationship and becoming a mother. “Lift Me Up” debuting at No. 2 and not No. 1 could be a timing thing, but for this to be so high as a single and as a part of a movie soundtrack, is still very impressive and worth celebrating.

Jason Lipshutz: A 6. While a No. 2 debut is an impressive feat for any artist, particularly one who has been largely away from a solo music career for the past six years, Rihanna has collected enough No. 1 smashes by now to reasonably expect her long-awaited return single to debut in the top spot. Poor timing is the culprit here — even though Swift’s “Anti-Hero” is in its second week, it’s proven a streaming juggernaut in its first couple of frames — and ultimately, the No. 2 debut of “Lift Me Up” demonstrates how much excitement there is around Rihanna’s studio return, as she approaches the Super Bowl halftime show and (hopefully) more music releases.

Neena Rouhani: How excited she should be is a hard call to make. How excited do I think she actually is? Honestly, a 5. Rih-Rih is a mommy. And judging by how the superstar mogul pours herself into everything she does, I imagine she’s most focused on her baby boy right now. Not to mention the long hiatus we all painfully endured–it’s clear she has her head and hands tied up in the other endeavors that made her a billionaire. Between Fenty Beauty, Savage x Fenty, prepping for her Super Bowl headlining debut, and co-parenting alongside A$AP Rocky, I think she has bigger fish to fry than being excited about nearly reaching her 15th Hot 100 No. 1. (No offense, Billboard.) Now, if and when the album comes? That’ll be another story.

Andrew Unterberger: A 7.5. Rihanna is definitely on that always-getting-shorter shortlist of artists who could reasonably expect to debut at No. 1 nearly every time out, but this is the occasion that would get the asterisk here — a relatively low-key ballad, for a movie soundtrack, going against the biggest song from the year’s biggest album. No. 2 is still a very fine showing for “Lift Me Up,” and Rihanna has never seemed like the No. 1 at All Costs sort of pop star anyway.

2. “Lift Me Up” is a one-off single from the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack and has not been announced as the beginning of any kind of new album era for Rihanna. Do you think it tells us anything about the sonic or artistic direction she may be moving in if and when she does make a full return?

Lyndsey Havens: Absolutely not. I do think she may be more in her lullaby bag due to being a new mom, but in terms of a new era for Rihanna the artist… I don’t see this as being it. And I think that’s the point… there’s a particular genius in returning with a soundtrack song for a universally beloved franchise. It’s an appetizer that satisfies the craving for new Rihanna music without saying much about what the entree will be — or when it will even be served. 

Cydney Lee: Maybe, but I’m leaning towards no. This song sounds like it was tailor-made for this movie, considering that it sort of doubles as a tribute to Chadwick Boseman. She may have a few songs similar to this on her eventual new album, but I’m not sure if this sonic choice will the “theme” of it per se. I’d be happy with the vocal runs, but I would also love to hear some spunk when we do hear from her again.

Jason Lipshutz: It’s worth remembering that, before the album drought that fans are currently experiencing, Rihanna made the Navy wait a little over three years between 2012’s Unapologetic and 2016’s Anti — and in that gap, she released a handful of one-off singles (“FourFiveSeconds,” “Bitch Better Have My Money,” “American Oxygen”) that, in retrospect, didn’t really tell us much about the sound and scope of Anti. So, while “Lift Me Up” reaffirms Rihanna as one of the most compelling vocalists in modern popular music, I’d guess that the soundtrack single itself doesn’t tip off too much about her upcoming artistic direction.

Neena Rouhani: No. I don’t think she’d give it away like that. I think this was a nice effort to get the ball rolling and put herself out there again as an artist, but I don’t think we should view this song as indicative of anything. Ask yourself, would Beyoncé or Adele use a soundtrack moment to introduce their new personal sound and direction to the world? I think not. And Rihanna wouldn’t, either.

Andrew Unterberger: I wouldn’t necessarily read a ton into it, but… I also wouldn’t be surprised if the self-proclaimed savage of the Anti era does sound a little mellower on the whole next time we hear a full statement from her. “Lift Me Up” sounds like it was recorded deep in the throes of domestic bliss, and from all public indicators, that does seem to be where Rihanna is spending most of her time these days. That’s not to say she’ll always be there, or that she won’t still get out every once in a while to pour it up good and proper, but Rih has always connected with fans through her authenticity, and this may just be the most authentic version of her at the moment.

3. “Lift” has had a dynamite start at radio, becoming just the fourth song since 1998 to hit the chart’s top 10 in its first week. Do you see this as a sign that the song will end up being a long-lasting hit, or do you anticipate enthusiasm for it on the airwaves will fade quickly? 

Lyndsey Havens: I could be wrong, but I don’t see this fitting into Rih’s Super Bowl set and I think at that point, her catalog of mega-hits will eclipse the growth of “Lift.” I can see it sticking around on radio perhaps — and certainly sustaining following the premiere of Black Panther this weekend — but don’t necessarily see it becoming a long-lasting streaming beast.

Cydney Lee: The radio stats are always interesting to me because I don’t listen to it too much anymore. But I feel like its success on this medium might depend on how long the movie stays in the forefront of peoples’ minds. Black Panther and its soundtrack being spearheaded by Kendrick Lamar was a moment for the Black community especially. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is and will also be a moment — but in a different way, because while the sequel itself is highly anticipated, there’s the added curiosity of how this film was made and how the story will be told without its main figure, Chadwick Boseman. The context is just overall sadder.

Even though it’s Rihanna’s first drop in forever, I do feel like “Lift Me Up” might fade on the radio in due time, but all depends on how long people will be talking about the movie. Either that OR it will stay around for a while because it is one of the few crumbs she has given fans over the years, and people will latch onto it.

Jason Lipshutz: Not many popular artists can be expected to make a ballad work at top 40 radio, but Rihanna has proven herself in that elite class, considering the success of smashes like “Stay,” “Take a Bow” and “Love on the Brain.” I could see “Lift Me Up” enjoying a prolonged run at the format, which is undoubtedly hungry to reincorporate one of its biggest superstars of the past 15 years and balance out some of the more uptempo songs currently in rotation. Maybe it won’t be a redefining hit at top 40, but don’t be surprised to hear “Lift Me Up” at pop radio long after Black Panther: Wakanda Forever leaves theaters.

Neena Rouhani: This isn’t at all indicative of my opinions on Rihanna’s artistic endurance, but more a commentary on the current musical climate – it’ll fade. Because, what doesn’t fade? There aren’t many songs in the last few years — post-2020 I’ll say — that have had staying power. The cycle is just too fast, the market too saturated. Now, do I think it’ll endure amongst her dedicated fanbase? Absolutely. It’s a great ballad and sits well within her catalog. It also really exemplifies how much she’s grown vocally during her absence. But I don’t know how long it’ll last on radio.

Andrew Unterberger: I think the variety of radio formats that appear to be trying it out bodes pretty well for it. I don’t know if it’ll be particularly enduring on streaming — it already seems to be fading pretty quickly there — but this might be more of an adult-oriented hit anyway, which is fine. We’ll probably be hearing more from it come award season at the very least. (Could we get performances from Rihanna at the Super Bowl and the Oscars in back-to-back months?)

4. Along with OneRepublic’s “I Ain’t Worried” (from Top Gun: Maverick) and Doja Cat’s “Vegas” (from Elvis), we now have three very different songs from three very different movies hitting the Hot 100’s top 10 in the past month. Is this a meaningful trend to you, or is it just a fluke of timing?

Lyndsey Havens: I honestly hadn’t thought about the possibility of this being a trend, but now that’s been mentioned… I guess it could be related to life being open again and people seeing movies and so on. But I don’t think there’s much more to it than that — as mentioned, these three songs are totally different and popular for totally different reasons: The whistling on “I Ain’t Worried,” the grungy revamp on an Elvis hit and the long-awaited return of one of music’s biggest stars. All hits in their own right.

Cydney Lee: This seems meaningful and reflective of how music is consumed. To me, it seems like people are paying more attention to movie soundtracks these days, especially if the soundtrack features a brand-new song by an artist and not just a synch of a song that’s already out. With the way fandom is now, it makes sense that songs like these would be in the top 10 because fans (and stans) seem to jump on any new music their favorite artist releases. Especially, if it’s an artist who hasn’t dropped anything in years, hence Rihanna.

Jason Lipshutz: A fluke — “I Ain’t Worried” represents a traditional soundtrack hit in that its placement in Top Gun: Maverick has fueled its success, but “Vegas” growing into a top 10 hit speaks more to Doja Cat’s current red-hot singles streak than its usage in Elvis, and “Lift Me Up” is being heralded as Rihanna’s return before we even hear how it’s synched in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. With all that said, movie theaters have been back in full swing in 2022, and it will be interesting to see how soundtrack singles are treated in a post-lockdown world. Maybe 2023 and beyond will include more big swings to try and mine the next “I Ain’t Worried,” and, as Stranger Things proved this year, those big synchs don’t need to be heard in theaters (or new songs, for that matter).

Neena Rouhani: I think it’s meaningful, but feels more like a revival than a recent phenomenon. In 2012, Adele’s “Skyfall” was a Hot 100 top 10 hit showered with accolades, while later in 2015, The Weeknd’s “Earned It” hit No. 1 on a number of charts and won a Grammy. Then, in 2018 we saw it again with “Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper from A Star Is Born. I think we’re maybe seeing it at a more rapid pace, and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s mostly a fluke, but it’s a good reminder that movie soundtracks can still be fertile ground for artists looking to stay in the mix in between albums (like Doja Cat), to reintroduce themselves to a wider audience after a fade from the mainstream (like OneRepublic) or to do a soft launch after a long period of dormancy (like Rihanna). And it’s good news for us as fans, too; it’s always a positive thing for the health and vibrancy of pop music when soundtracks are impacting the culture like this.

5. Place your prop bets: Will we get more new Rihanna music before her Super Bowl gig in February? (And if so, how much/what form will it take?) 

Lyndsey Havens: Hahahaha no.

Cydney Lee: Ha! No. Maybe a single, but even that seems too ambitious.

Jason Lipshutz: Yes. This is just a guess, but my bet would be that we get a splashy uptempo single in the weeks ahead of the Super Bowl, and that “Lift Me Up” represents the poignant place-setter for that main course. Rihanna could easily fill a Super Bowl setlist with her many hits and use “Lift Me Up” as the one tearjerker moment… but come on, we all want a danceable new Rihanna single, and I’d bet that Rihanna knows exactly what we want.

Neena Rouhani: Not only has she already squashed the new album rumors, but I don’t see a world where she releases an album before the performance. Maybe a single. Or she could treat the Super Bowl gig a la Kendrick Lamar for his headlining performance at Day n Vegas, where he used it as a closing of a chapter, highlighting all of his career achievements up until that point. I think it’ll signify the beginning of a new era. And I look forward to seeing how she uses that insanely large platform to make a statement — especially considering her past comments about turning down the 2019 Super Bowl to avoid being a “sellout.”

Andrew Unterberger: I’ll say one more new single. Why not?

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