It wouldn't be fair to call Rita Ora "famous for being famous," but it's not too harsh to suggest no one really understands why she's so successful. In April of this year, Mail Online ran a story claiming she "earned a whopping £3 million in one year… despite not releasing any music." Whether that figure is a fabrication or not, the article cleverly tapped into people's preconceptions about Rita: she's a celebrity, not a singer, who seems to have perfected the art of winging it since she featured on DJ Fresh's Hot Right Now," a number 1 single in 2012.
In the months since Mail Online purported to reveal her impressive earning power, however, Rita's music career has ironically actually enjoyed a renaissance. This year, she's racked up three top 10 hits in the UK: Clean Bandit soundalike electro bop "Your Song" (written by Ed Sheeran), a feature on typically housey Avicii single "Lonely Together," and her new single "Anywhere". For probably the first time in her career, Rita appears to have what I'll call "UK gay pop Twitter" on side. A meme laying her chopped and screwed "Anywhere" vocals over a performance by RuPaul's Drag Race contestant Aja has been retweeted over 1,000 times.
Still, this doesn't change the fact she's only ever released one album, 2012's Ora, which felt more like an attempt to cover every contemporary pop-R&B base than a coherent artistic statement. Lead single "R.I.P.", originally written by Drake for Rihanna, was co-produced by then-trendy drum-and-bass duo Chase & Status and Norwegian pop maestros Stargate. It also featured a Tinie Tempah rap. Rita’s A&R team had thrown everything at the wall, but it worked: "R.I.P." matched the success of "Hot Right Now" to become her second UK number 1 single. The album's next single, "How We Do (Party)," which sounded like Katy Perry with added swearing, reached number 1 too. In subsequent years, Rita’s music career has sometimes looked to an outsider like an afterthought: one that ricocheted between unexpected gems like 2015’s infectious Charli XCX duet “Doing It” and misguided moments like the same year’s Chris Brown collaboration “Body on Me.”
Because of all this, I'm super-intrigued to find out what Rita is like IRL: is she the ultimate pop culture operator, or an uncommonly canny chancer? When we meet at a recording studio in west London—close to the council estate where she was raised by Albanian parents who emigrated from Kosovo when she was a baby, and the Portobello branch of shoe chain Size? where she worked before becoming famous—she's running about an hour late. Today is technically "a day off", but Rita says she hasn't put her feet up. She's gone boxing, had a wax, viewed a flat "which wasn't right for me"—and now, before she records vocals in the room next door, she's sitting down for our interview.
Initially she seems a bit subdued. She's wearing sneakers, a woolly hat and a puffy jacket, and has the look of someone struggling to keep her day on track. But this doesn't mean she forgets her manners: after apologising for keeping me waiting—it was fine, Rita, your PR took me to the pub—we crack on. When I ask if she feels underestimated as a singer and performer, Rita’s energy levels rocket and she replies without pausing for breath. "Yeah, I do. I mean, I don't want people to read this and be like, 'She's moaning and complaining and throwing her toys out of the pram.' But… yeah. Sometimes I feel like, have you guys forgotten I've actually done a lot of things prior to, like, hosting the EMAs? I was nominated for an Oscar and I had four number 1 singles and a number 1 album. I've been a coach on The Voice and The X Factor. I guess people only see what's in front of them. You're only as good as your last gig, you know."
As Rita points out, alongside promo for "Anywhere," she's currently preparing to host the MTV EMAs in London on Sunday. This high-profile presenting gig is hardly her first side hustle since she broke through with "Hot Right Now" five years ago. Since then she’s hosted the reality shows America's Next Top Model and Boy Band, landed small roles in the Fifty Shades of Grey films and Jake Gyllenhaal-led boxing movie Southpaw, and collaborated with brands including Rimmel, Adidas and Samsung. When you look at everything she's done, indeed outside music, it's no surprise Mail Online reckons she’s raking it in.
"I can see where people get this confusion about me, 'cause I do so much stuff—being a TV host and all that," Rita concedes today. "I just see myself now as a 360 type of artist. I put music out but I also love to entertain and do TV. You know, I went to a theatre school so I love drama." But Rita, if you'd been told in 2012 that your second album still wouldn't have arrived five years later, what would you have said? "Oh my God, I don't know. I would probably have had a heart attack!"
In fairness, Rita's second album probably should have dropped in 2014, when she scored her fourth and most recent UK number 1 single: "I Will Never Let You Down", a dance-pop banger written by her then-boyfriend Calvin Harris. The track also climbed to number 77 in the US, but after their romantic relationship ended, Harris exercised his songwriter's right not to approve her performance at the Teen Choice Awards, effectively killing the song's momentum. Speaking about her ex in 2015, Rita told Marie Claire: "I thought he had my back and that he'd never steer me wrong. But then ‘I Will Never Let You Down’ came out, and everything started to go a bit weird. I don't know if it was because business was mixed with personal or what."
The "I Will Never Let You Down" debacle didn't help her increasingly tense relationship with Jay-Z's entertainment company, Roc Nation, who'd signed her in 2008. In December 2015, Rita sued Roc Nation) claiming she hadn't been allowed to release her second album and their working relationship was now "irrevocably damaged". The following January, Roc Nation countersued Rita) for allegedly breaking her recording contract by failing to supply the five albums she'd signed for. Rita and Roc Nation reached a settlement in May 2016, and a month later, Rita signed a new deal with Atlantic Records.
Though I'm not here today to re-open old wounds, I can't help asking Rita what her low point was. "That," she says sombrely. "Just being in the studio and having this album ready to go and it’s just sitting there. I was like, 'God, I just want people to hear that I'm actually still making music: this music exists and I want people to hear it.' You know, I'd talk to all my fans on Twitter and Instagram to explain what was going on—thank God I had that.” Rita says the TV offers came in at exactly the right time. "You know, I couldn't be putting music out, and I had these offers coming over to me, so why wouldn't I take them? What else would I have done?" A little later, she adds with an appealing flash of bloody-mindedness: "I was like, 'I'm just gonna be in your faces all the time until you realize what the hell you've done.' It worked!”
Rita says she's channelled her rough patch into her second album, now due next May, which features an entirely new batch of songs to those recorded for Roc Nation. "I think with this album, what makes a Rita Ora song is that it's got that desperation for validation—do you know what I mean? You can feel it in songs like ‘Anywhere’ and ‘Lonely Together’, which I think represent my album so well. It's all kind of guitar-based and I think people didn't expect that. ‘Anywhere’ almost sounds like a country record before you get this, like, EDM drop."
I like the way Rita uses the word "desperation" here. Other, more media-trained pop stars might have picked a more flattering phrasing like "determination" or "drive." Can you imagine Taylor Swift ever admitting she feels desperate? But Rita just tells it like it is, so I ask exactly what she means by "desperation for validation"?
"Just the fact that I've done enough to call myself a British musician," she replies. "I think that I represent this country incredibly well because I'm so proud of being from here and going overseas and having the chance to do loads of things—and not just music. On this album, I speak about the fact that I have a lot of feelings, like: 'Give me the respect I deserve!' Whether I'm singing about a relationship or whatever, it was all inspired by that frustration. I mean, I've been through some shit. I've been through a lot of shit."
The week after our interview, Rita announces a UK tour for May 2018. It will be her first in over five years. Her career so far hasn’t been flawless or even especially focused, but there’s no denying she can assemble a setlist packed with hits: she now has 16 UK top 40 singles to her name—pretty good for someone who’s been winging it. I can’t help thinking that the secret of Rita’s success is actually good, old-fashioned hard work and perseverance. “I guess I just became obsessed with success and wanting to do well,” she tells me as our time together draws to a close. “I was thinking about it all the time—every day, every night. I may have sacrificed a lot of emotions and personal things but I don't regret that and I wouldn't change it. I think I wanted to get out of the council estate I grew up in and I wanted to give my parents something really nice. That's how it happened. I was always like: I've gotta get out of here.”
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