Credit - TIME; Getty Images (8)
Rihanna is finally returning to music, seven years after releasing her last album, ANTI. Since then, she’s been busy with many different ventures, including her wildly successful makeup brand, Fenty Beauty, a skincare line called Fenty Skin, a lingerie and fashion brand, Savage X Fenty, and on top of all that becoming mother to a baby boy. The 34-year-old mogul has had her hands full, but now she’s marking her return to music by taking the biggest stage in the world: The Super Bowl Halftime Show.
Rihanna’s official return to music came with the release of Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, for which she contributed two songs to the soundtrack, “Lift Me Up” and “Born Again.” The former received nominations for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
The announcement that Rihanna would perform at this year’s game came a few years after she declined to perform at the Halftime Show back in 2019, as a stance of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, who had begun kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 as a form of protest against racial injustice and police brutality. “I couldn’t dare do that. For what?” she told Vogue back in 2019, “Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler. There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”
Now, though, she’s just days away from appearing in the coveted performance slot, with many fans hoping more new music and possibly a tour will soon follow. As we look forward to the show, two TIME writers look back at Rihanna’s best live performances, ranking the top 10 in descending order.
10. BRIT Awards, 2016 – “Consideration” and “Work” with SZA and Drake
The longtime chemistry between Rihanna and Drake worked to full effect during her 2016 performance at the BRIT Awards, where she opened a magnetic show with a rendition of “Consideration,” along with a sweet cameo by SZA, who was not only featured on the song, but co-wrote it. The real action came later, however, when Rihanna launched into a sultry rendition of “Work,” her all-white fringed ensemble glowing under the soft pink and blue lights of the stage, in an homage to the visuals of the song’s music video. Adding to the heat of the performance was a surprise appearance by Drake, who managed to deliver his verse on the track without getting distracted—a pretty major feat, considering that Rihanna was dancing up on him throughout, much to the delight of the audience.
9. Saturday Night Live, 2015 – “Bitch Better Have My Money”
Rihanna’s 2015 performance of “Bitch Better Have My Money” during her fifth appearance on Saturday Night Live had the production level of a sketch on the show, thanks to its impressive and versatile set design, which featured a moveable car (complete with a wife being held hostage in the backseat) and a veritable storyline of its own. She began the performance cruising in her “car,” following the narrative of the song as depicted in its memorable music video, before launching into a choreographed routine with her backup dancers and, finally, indulging in some enthusiastic air guitar with her band for an SNL performance that went above and beyond the program’s usual pared-down offerings.
8. MTV Video Music Awards, 2012 – “Cockiness” and “We Found Love”
Rihanna and boyfriend A$AP Rocky have been linked for years, but they first sparked relationship rumors during Rihanna’s 2012 performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she performed “Cockiness,” an interlude off her 2011 album Talk That Talk. The song had just gotten a remix with one of the most popular rappers that year—enter A$AP Rocky. The two got very close on stage and seemed comfortable after he surprised the crowd by joining in the performance. After they showed off their flirty chemistry, Rihanna took back the stage to perform her dance/EDM hit “We Found Love,” with Calvin Harris, in a DJ booth on location. Rihanna’s choreography and vocals remained on par as she sang and danced through the high-energy performance.
7. MTV Video Music Awards, 2016 – “Work,” “Rude Boy” and “What’s My Name”
While many people might remember the 2016 MTV VMAs as the event where Rihanna memorably rejected Drake while he was presenting her with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, it’s worth revisiting the four high-energy performances she gave that night in honor of her lifetime achievement merit—all with different themes and costume changes. One of the most arresting moments of the night was her dancehall-inspired performance, where, clad in fishnets and a durag, she performed a medley of “Work,” “Rudeboy,” and “What’s My Name,” mixed with reggae beats and the Beenie Man classic “Who Am I.” The performance was an apparent homage to her Caribbean roots, a cultural throughline of her discography, and featured choreography that, fittingly, felt more like a night out at a dancehall than a rehearsed routine.
6. Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, 2012 – “Diamonds” and “Phresh Out the Runway”
In the lead-up to the release of her seventh studio album, Unapologetic, Rihanna was tapped to perform at the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show—an annual event whose decline happened in parallel with the rise of Rihanna’s own annual Savage X Fenty shows, which feature a diverse set of models. The 2012 show featured high-profile musical performances while the supermodels strutted down the runways. While the event’s organizers knew Rihanna would give an electrifying performance, they might not have expected her to outshine the models. For her first performance, she sang “Diamonds” and immediately took control of the stage as the gates opened and the Victoria’s Secret Angels fluttered around her. When she returned to give the night’s final performance, Rihanna performed a new song, aptly named “Phresh Out The Runway.” As the song finishes and the final model exits, she takes the chance to strut down the runway while making direct eye contact with the camera, dripping swagger and confidence.
5. Diamond Ball, 2014 – “Pour It Up” (Orchestral Version)
The Diamond Ball is a star-studded event that, before the pandemic, Rihanna used to put on every year with her Clara Lionel Foundation. At the inaugural Diamond Ball in 2014, Rihanna was introduced by Brad Pitt before taking the stage to perform “Pour It Up.” But this version was unlike any of the others she’d done in the past. There is no official video of her performance, so the best version is from an attendee’s cellphone video. Instead of the booming bass, claps, and persistent hi-hats, she switches the backing track out for a full live orchestra with a conductor and drummer for an epic rendition of the stripper anthem.
4. London Paralympic Closing Ceremony, 2012 – “Princess of China” with Coldplay/ “We Found Love,”/ and “Run This Town”
Over her nearly two-decade-long career, Rihanna has collaborated with the biggest stars in the world, from Jay-Z, Calvin Harris, and Pharrell Williams to Drake and Coldplay. On their 2011 album, Mylo Xyloto, the latter band enlisted the Bajan singer’s fierce vocals the track “Princess of China.” In September 2012, Coldplay, Rihanna, and Jay-Z gathered in London to perform at the closing ceremony for the Paralympic games. Rihanna starts the performance with a theatrical entrance. She’s donning a fire-truck red ensemble as she sails across the field on a weathered ship before meeting Chris Martin and the band on stage. She then delivers a sensual performance with the frontman as they sing and caress each other. The song ends, and she gets airlifted while singing a piano version of her smash hit collaboration with Calvin Harris, “We Found Love,” before the full EDM beat drops. The stadium erupts into a euphoric dance club as the song reaches its peak.
3. AOL Sessions, 2010 – “Russian Roulette”
2010 saw Rihanna’s public persona change. She opened up about the abuse she experienced at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, Chris Brown. Her musical direction shifted from fun, frilly pop girl on Good Girl Gone Bad to the darker, gloomier Rated R. That album explores themes of anger, hurt, and pain through songs like “Stupid in Love” and “Cold Case Love.” During the album promotion cycle for Rated R, Rihanna, then 22, appeared on the “AOL Sessions” to deliver an outstanding performance of her emotional single “Russian Roulette.” In addition to stellar vocals, she shows off a commanding stage presence that would only improve in the years to follow.
2. Rock in Rio, 2015 – “Unfaithful,” “Love the Way You Lie,” and “Take a Bow”
Rihanna is no stranger to delivering a high-energy performance with choreography and singing, but her ballads show the true power of her voice. Her voice is simply captivating when she stands at the microphone and gives all she has, as exemplified by her 2015 headlining performance at Rock in Rio. She asked the crowd, “Do y’all like my slow sh-t?” before delivering a medley of stripped-down versions of her ballads, starting with “Unfaithful.” She sings the chorus with gusto and ease, seamlessly transitioning into “Love the Way You Lie” and singing a condensed version before ending with “Take a Bow,” where she adds a few runs and doesn’t miss a single note. This performance is an excellent example of her mastery over a medley and ability to keep the crowd entertained even when she slows things down.
1. Billboard Music Awards, 2016 – “Love on the Brain”
Ask any member of the Navy, Rihanna’s militantly loyal fan base, which live performance embodies the essence of the superstar and they’ll direct you to her show-stopping, passionate rendition of the ballad “Love on the Brain” at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards. Bathed in green light on a moody, minimalist and slightly post-apocalyptic stage, she delivered powerhouse vocals while swathed in a green fur stole and a pair of matching sunglasses, making for a musical (and visual) moment that stole the show and proved that just like the song, when it comes to Rihanna, we just can’t get enough.