Is Rihanna’s ‘Visual Autobiography’ a Triumph or a Tease?

Rihanna has a new launch. But it’s not a single, or a new Fenty assortment, or one other Amazon Prime underwear present. It’s a “visual autobiography,” out on Oct. 24. Just over a foot vast and about one and a third toes tall, 15 kilos and filled with shiny footage, with a few gatefolds and particular inserts.

Vanessa Friedman Well, this offers new which means to “drop:” Rihanna’s 500-page tome. If it fell in your foot, it will crush it. She has put her stamp on nearly each popular culture type — music, movie, vogue — and now, books. Is this an efficient addition to the canon? Let’s talk about.

Jon Caramanica In this period of social-media personal-brand saturation, pop megastars deploy so many alternative sorts of nontransparent transparency. But even on this, Rihanna is in a class of her personal — not a strategic over-sharer like Taylor Swift, and never a floating-above-it-all icon like Beyoncé. What this guide does significantly properly is seize the off-the-cuffness of Rihanna’s celeb.

V.F. In one other time (perhaps earlier than Beyoncé launched us to the idea of the “visual album”), this might have been referred to as a coffee-table guide. But by calling it a visible autobiography, it created — for me, anyway — all types of raised expectations.

I used to be envisioning a private window on her life, beginning again when she was truly Robyn Fenty and lived in Barbados, with some household historical past thrown in. We get a tiny style of that — there’s a gap gatefold of her youth, full with a report card — however then we leap straight to touring in 2011. So whereas it’s true that after spending time with the guide, I feel I realized one thing, it wasn’t what I used to be anticipating.

J.C. This simply may have been a 500-page doorstop of each hyperglam picture shoot Rihanna had ever posed for, however as an alternative it’s a sort of behind-the-scenes travelogue, a Shutterfly guide of one of the well-known individuals on this planet.

V.F. But it’s a fairly glam travelogue. Maybe it’s merely the standard of the paper (excessive, giant format), however I can’t assist feeling that even what’s theoretically behind the scenes — off-duty photographs of Rihanna on safari, Rihanna on a yacht, Rihanna swimming — has nonetheless been Photoshopped into perfection.

As has her posse. You rightly level out that she largely appears to be all the time having a nice time with nice pals, which is perhaps how we wish to think about our celeb idols. But who’re they? What do they do? How did they meet? All these questions I wish to know.

J.C. Melissa Forde! Jenn Rosales! Jahleel Weaver! Stars of the Rihanna Instagram ecosystem. That this book feels haphazard is both a liability and perhaps an unexpected asset. Most of the pictures appear to have been taken by a photographer with very good access, and around whom Rihanna does not appear walled off. There are several that offer accessible entree into wild circumstances — getting dressed for various galas and balls, smoking weed with Snoop Dogg and getting her famous torso tattoo. Whether that tells much about Rihanna — that’s something different.

Indeed, I learned much more about her from her recent Vogue cover story (and given my concerns about the desiccated state of that art form, and also the online pushback against that story, that’s saying a lot). But this tome is not about depth — it’s about fascination. For $150 — the “luxury supreme” edition is $5,500! — the truly faithful get an opportunity to ride along on tour, on vacation, on the runway. It’s niche merch coated with the imprimatur of art.

V.F. It’s telling that during the launch party at the Guggenheim, Rihanna told WWD that “my fans are young and they’ve got ADD; they’d rather look at pictures than read, let’s be real.” This is a book for the Rihanna Navy, not the public at large looking for illumination or understanding. Though it’s pretty pricey for a fanzine, even one elevated by a publisher of luxury tomes. In the same way that Rihanna has bent luxury fashion to her will, now that LVMH is backing her Fenty collection, she has bent the book biz. This is, effectively, simply putting more gold bricks into the pedestal on which now resides Rihanna. In that sense, I felt as if I did get some further insight into just how she is constructing her legend: with Russell James, Inez and Vinoodh, Dior and the Met Gala.

In fact, speaking of fashion, what I found fascinating was how important the industry clearly is to Rihanna. It gets almost as much play as music. And you’ve got to love all the drooling, please-wear-the-free-stuff-I’m-giving-you notes from designers that were reproduced for the world to see (and credit to her for exposing them).

I also found the “kitchen catwalk” spread — several photos of her strutting in different looks in what I imagine to be a commercial kitchen that doubles as a secret entryway to somewhere fabulous — to be a kind of display of work, the elegance and vim of her outfits juxtaposed against unglamorous obstacles.

V.F. She gives you these tantalizing glimpses, but only just barely, of the work she clearly puts in, and the rough edges that exist in any life. I was very struck by a photo buried amid all the others — a picture of her after the Miu Miu show hanging with Jared Leto on one side and Terry Richardson, a.k.a., the photographer who became a poster figure for sexual harassment, on the other. Not that Terry even gets an ID, like her other buddies. Was including him a tacit gesture of support? A mistake? Who knows?

J.C. Also telling is the opening picture from her 777 Tour, in 2012, in which she essentially kidnapped a planeful of journalists and flew around the world for seven concerts in seven nights. In the photo, she’s the target of dozens of cameras and microphones — that’s what happens when she steps outside the bubble for even a moment, which makes you appreciate, or at least sympathize with, the bubble.

V.F. Which brings up the other elephant in the room: Chris Brown, who is completely canceled in this version of Rihanna. We all make myths of our lives, I guess, smoothing them over, glossing them up for public consumption. This is, in the end, a knowing and self-conscious way of letting us in on that process. It leaves me both impressed and frustrated.

J.C. Which is to say, you’ve fully absorbed what it’s like to be a fan of contemporary mega-celebs, who deploy a very specific blend of bait and restraint. Social media has created a sense of intimacy and entitlement between fans and their heroes, and has also made very famous people develop new mechanisms of hiding.

To be fair, however, Rihanna has rarely been one to show her work — sweat is not her brand. On record, she rarely pushes her voice (though when she does, it’s impressive). In concert, she’s almost distractingly casual. She is alarmingly famous, but never seems to be stressing about it. If this book is to be believed, it’s because while millions upon millions of people hang on her every gesture, she’s somewhere with her friends, having a ball.

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