There can’t be many people unable to mimic the “ella, ella” refrain from “Umbrella”, but this song is so much more than a catchy chorus.
It’s incredible to think “Umbrella” first saw the light of day way back in 2007. It made Rihanna a worldwide star and wasn’t just one of the biggest hits of that year, having hit Number One pretty much everywhere around the world, it’s still one of the biggest hits of the 21st century.
Not bad going for a songwriting team who started out writing advertising jingles, which just shows why you should always stick with your craft, in however humble a way…you never know where it might lead you.
The writing credits go to Christopher Stewart, Terius Nash and Kuk Harrell, together with Shawn Carter (Jay-Z to his friends) who supplied the opening rap.
Apart from the fact that Jay-Z was the boss of Rihanna’s record company, there is no immediately obvious reason why he’d be on there, but “Umbrella” was a song he believed in and Rihanna was an artist he believed in. He worked hard to pull the deal together and make it happen, so I don’t begrudge him a slot on the record and the songwriting team.
“Umbrella” is an interesting, and somewhat self-contradicting song, though…at least in the bits Jay-Z didn’t write.
It’s a very romantic song in many ways, written by an all-male songwriting team but from the perspective of a woman. That doesn’t often work well, but on this occasion it works perfectly.
Then there’s the hard edge to the track…the tightest drums you’ve ever heard, so tight that there’s no way this was a live track. One of probably 734 different takes was picked out as the pinnacle of perfection and looped for “Umbrella”. But the crashing drums and hi-hat are sparse, restrained, somewhat cool and distant, yet everything you could ever want in a drum track. It’s the work of genius all by itself.
In addition to the drums, we’ve got a bit of bass going on in there and, if you listen very carefully, some synthesisers.
That’s it…songs don’t come much more sparse than this…
Even the vocal is sparse. Rihanna nails the cool and detached feel just perfectly — again somewhat at odds with a romantic storyline, but this song is carried by the vocal…frankly there’s not that much else going on…and it’s the strength of the vocal that burrowed “Umbrella” so deeply into the collective sub-conscious of the record-buying public.
I always enjoy songs that juxtapose different flavours and feelings like that, and “Umbrella” is one of the best.
And of course “Umbrella” (ella, ella…admit it, you’re doing it almost subconsciously already) is a great metaphor. When the skies go dark and the rain pounds down, someone coming up to you with an umbrella and letting you shelter under it with them while the storm clouds pass by is a very appealing concept.
And it’s no different when those storm clouds represent the pressures of fame and fortune, or even the pressures of everyday life we all go through. If you have someone in your life who provides that protection…that metaphorical umbrella…for you, count your blessings. We live in a world where so many people don’t have anyone to look out for them or protect them from harm.
You have my heart, and we’ll never be worlds apart
Maybe in magazines, but you’ll still be my star
Baby, ’cause in the dark
You can’t see shiny cars
And that’s when you need me there
With you I’ll always share
When the sun shines we shine together
Told you I’ll be here forever
Said I’ll always be your friend
Took an oath that I’m a-stick it out till the end
Now it’s raining more than ever
Know that we still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella
When you see the words written down, it make you wonder how those lyrics turned into such a hard-edged hip-hop classic. Shouldn’t it be sung by some romantic lead, with soaring strings and a church choir on backing vocals?
That’s the genius of “Umbrella”, and its songwriting team. They do the exact opposite of the “obvious” treatment and that’s why I love this song so much — the music and the lyrics are so incompatible…on the surface…that no sane person would ever put them together.
But like “opposites attract”, perhaps, this very non-traditional combination of music and lyrics makes “Umbrella” one of the all-time classics. Rolling Stone magazine certainly thought so when they put it on their 2010 listing of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
I particularly like the line about “in the dark you can’t see shiny cars”.
One minute you’re riding high. The next…BAM!…you’re lower than low. You never see it coming, like the shiny car driving too fast through the darkened city in the wee small hours, ignoring red lights because no-one’s around…you step off the curb when the crossing signal turns green…next thing you know, paramedics are shining lights in your eyes and asking if you can hear them.
So it is with fame and fortune. It’s nice while you have it, but it’s a rare artist who doesn’t fall off the pedestal at some point, and it’s rarer still to climb back up onto the pedestal after you’ve dropped off it. Even Sinatra had setbacks in the course of his decades-long career.
Although some people find it hard to accept that someone who bought a nice house, used to be featured in glossy magazines and who has a couple of million in the bank might deserve our sympathy, the truth is we all have those struggles. Money allows you to suffer in comfort. It doesn’t make you suffer any less.
Thankfully, for some of us, Rihanna is there with her umbrella…
Those fancy things will never come in between
You’re part of my entity, here for infinity
When the world has took its part
When the world has dealt its cards
If the hand is hard, together we’ll mend your heart
If you’ve got someone who’ll stand by you when the record company won’t return your calls, the chat shows stop booking you, and life keeps dealing you cards from the bottom of the deck…or you’re just an ordinary person with an ordinary life who loses everything overnight through no fault of your own…you need someone with an umbrella like Rihanna’s to look after you till you’re better again.
I hope you have someone like that in your life. And if you don’t, try to be that person for someone else. We all need the hand of friendship the most at those times when nobody wants to know us. When times are at their hardest, we all need an umbrella.
Here’s Rihanna to tell you all about it…
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published. And why not check out my book “No Words, No Song”, where I write about more great songs like this one, available in the Kindle Bookstore (here).