*Can you imagine Rihanna’s 2007 hit “Umbrella” delivered through the sensual sneering of Britney Spears? Or the euro pop sound of Taio Cruz? How about the down home soulfulness of Mary J. Blige? All three singers were so close to landing the demo, but ultimately lost out due to their label’s rejection of the song, or, in Mary’s case, being too busy to even listen to it.
The saga begins in 2007 with songwriters Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, Terius “The-Dream” Nash and Kuk Harrell meeting at Atlanta’s Triangle Studios to come up with new songs. As the story goes, Harrell began toying with a hi-hat sound from the free GarageBand software that comes with all Mac computers. Stewart began adding some chords, which prompted the word “umbrella” to pop into Dream’s head.
Dream said he went into the booth and began singing the word “umbrella,” then wrote the chorus and first two verses on the spot, with Britney Spears in mind to record it for her upcoming fifth album, “Blackout.” Dream and Tricky thought Britney’s personal life was “a little out of control” at the time, and that “Umbrella” would serve as the perfect comeback. Several hours later, the entire demo was finished.
Dream and Tricky sent a copy of the “Umbrella” demo to Spears’ management. But before she could even hear it, the label rejected the song, claiming they already had enough material for “Blackout.”
With Britney out of the picture, Stewart and Nash began shopping the demo to other artists. Taio Cruz loved the track, but the British singer couldn’t convince his label to release it. Three years later, Cruz hit it big with the track, “Dynamite.”
It wasn’t until early February 2007 when Rihanna’s label head Antonio “LA” Reid got hold of the “Umbrella” demo. Stewart and Nash had sent it to A&R exec Karen Kwak, who told Reid it would be perfect for Rihanna’s third studio album, “Good Girl Gone Bad.” Reid sent the demo to Rihanna, who loved it so much that she wanted to record it immediately.
But Tricky and Dream also had Mary J. Blige in the mix for the demo. It was Grammy week at the time, and the songwriting duo desperately wanted “Umbrella” to land with the singer who had a multitude of nominations for “The Breakthrough.” Tricky had played “Umbrella” for one of Blige’s associates and the song was all but promised to Blige. But the singer has a rule that she must sign off on any record before her reps can accept it, and Blige had yet to listen to “Umbrella” because she was too busy with her Grammy obligations.
This waiting around for Blige to hear “Umbrella” did not please Kwak, who reportedly began blowing up Tricky’s phone over the demo being promised to Rihanna first. During this standoff, LA Reid finally acted on his industry power and longstanding relationship with Tricky to make the songwriters an offer for “Umbrella” that they couldn’t refuse.
The following month, on March 29, “Umbrella” featuring Jay-Z debuted on the singer’s Def Jam website to critical acclaim, including four Grammy nominations the following year and one win for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. “Umbrella” reached the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart on this day in 2007, where it remained for seven consecutive weeks.
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