First and foremost, I love Rihanna. She is one of the hardest working performers in the pop industry today and has been for quite some time. Throughout her thirteen year career, she has produced eight studio albums (all reaching the top ten on the Billboard 200) and whopping 71 singles, fourteen of which have reached number-one. In this latter category, she lies immediately below Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Mariah Carey – needless to say, she is a big deal! So if this Every Number-One Single challenge keeps going for a long time – and I really hope it does! – expect me to write about a whole lot of Rihanna’s music.
It’s an interesting challenge, though, to begin with this particular song, of all songs. For once thing, if you were to ask me to name off Rihanna’s most well-known singles, I would probably name about ten or even fifteen tracks before this one would even cross my mind. And that’s true despite it having gone to number-one! I guess this has more to do with the type of song it is versus the types that the performer has proven to be within her strongest suits. Throughout her entire career, Rihanna has navigated through a variety of styles and genres all while successfully keeping her distinct sonic personality front-and-center of these tracks. As noticeably different as songs like “Pon de Replay”, “Umbrella”, “Disturbia”, “Only Girl (In the World)”, “We Found Love”, and “Needed Me” are, there’s no denying that they couldn’t have come from anyone else.
With this being said, it’s also true that her gentler, slower R&B songs and ballads tend to not be among the first ten or fifteen that most people would name. It’s not that they’re bad (that’s certainly not the case with “Take a Bow”), but that average listeners tend to be partial to the uptempo dance singles. Despite this, though, “Take a Bow” did go to number-one! At this juncture, I would like to point to the production team partially responsible for crafting the sound of this song, that being Stargate. Stargate is a duo made up of Norwegian producers Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen. They did a bit of work in their native country, but hit it big after working on Ne-Yo’s breakout 2006 single “So Sick”, which topped the Hot 100. This same year, they also produced Beyoncé’s single “Irreplaceable”, which topped the same chart for a whopping ten weeks. This success prompted them to work extensively in the American markets, which soon led them to working with Rihanna.
The first track that Stargate produced for Rihanna was 2006’s “Unfaithful”, which went to #6. The next year came “Hate That I Love You”, a duet with Ne-Yo, and “Don’t Stop the Music”, each being top ten hits. Soon thereafter came “Take a Bow”, which would be the first of six number-one singles on which the production duo would work with Rihanna (the others being “Rude Boy”, “Only Girl (In the World)”, “What’s My Name?”, “S&M”, and “Diamonds”). For a while there, the Stargate sound and the Rihanna sound seemed to be inseparable from one another and while Rihanna has, once again, evolved and transformed as a artist since, there’s no denying the influence that they have had on the trajectory of her career.
I bring up Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” and Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” because the success of these songs’ sound is vital to how “Take a Bow” was able to make such a splash. “So Sick” has very sleek, polished production and takes a standard melancholic approach to heartbreak while still maintaining a strong dance beat. Additionally, the production on “Irreplaceable” implements elements of an acoustic ballad, as well as a polished dance rhythm, strung amidst a more empowered, confident take on a break-up. With this kept in mind, the best way I could describe “Take a Bow” is as a sort of combination of these two tracks. The first thing you hear upon pressing play on the track is a twinkly piano line set alongside a pumping R&B rhythm and synthetic handclaps. This combination of familiarly sentimental instrumental sounds seamlessly paired with more pronounced, harder dance-pop elements are two of the biggest components to what makes the Stargate sound.
And then there’s the lyrics. The opening line to this track gives a good idea of where the rest of the song is going: “How ’bout a round of applause, standing ovation”. It lies very closely in attitude to the opening line of “Irreplaceable”: “To the left, to the left”. And while both lines are vague at first, the remainder of the lyrics makes their context clear. As Beyoncé later expands with, “Everything you own in the box to the left”, Rihanna extrapolates with, “That was quite a show, very entertaining / But it’s over now; go on and take a bow”. In the midst of this breakup, Rihanna instills a bit of humor into the situation by liking her ex-mate to an actor in a play, even going as far as telling him that, “the award for the best liar goes to you”.
But really, the star of this performance here is Rihanna herself, who brings in loads of pettiness to this situation in totally successful ways. By stating that her ex “looks so ugly when he cries” and is “only sorry he got caught”, punctuated by the occasional bit of laughter and sarcastic utterances of “please!”, it’s clear that she’s not willing to be the victim in this tale. She is more enthused at cutting down her unfaithful lover down to size, and does so by equating his past actions and promises as nothing more than an act she only momentarily fell for. Before the final chorus, the introductory line comes in again, and it possesses so much more bite now that the cards have all been laid out. My one minor complaint here would be that Rihanna’s vocal prowess isn’t as huge as I know she’s capable of achieving, but I think dialing it back a bit does help in her favor. It matches the smooth production to make this fit for easy listening, yet gives her room to state her case in creatively bitter ways. It’s true that the performer has grown since this track and done some much more impressive work, but for this earlier part of Rihanna’s career, it’s one of a handful of other truly remarkable tracks in her repertoire.