Jay-Z's latest co-sign reps the UK, Kosovo, and Roc Nation. Can Rita Ora live up to such great expectations?
This feature appears in Complex's August/September 2012 issue.
Rita Ora needs a moment.
The 21-year-old Brit isn't finished prepping for tonight’s performance at Emirates Stadium where she’ll be opening for a little band called Coldplay. She’s just had her golden ringlets attended to, inhaled some fragrant vapors from a bong-like device that soothes her vocal cords, touched up her lips (M.A.C. Russian Red), and lamented the fact that one of her multi-colored velvet fingernails has chipped off.
Pulling a varsity letterman’s jacket over her pale pink satin nightgown, Rita steps out of her dressing room onto the mezzanine level of the enormous sports complex. She watches silently as the first wave of 70,000 fans begin dashing toward the stage where she will soon be performing. This being London, a light drizzle begins to fall and tiny umbrellas start popping up on the distant stadium floor. One person slips, falls, and gets wheeled away by medical staff. “This place is packed,” Rita says to herself. “I’ve gotta go down there soon.”
“I get nervous before shows and then I’m just like, OK—let’s go,” she explains later. “It’s like, you can’t fuck it up now ’cause everybody’s watching you. It’s more of a rush—like an adrenaline high.”
Back in the dressing room Rita’s old friend and stylist, Kyle, helps her with final preparations before taking the stage. “I’m like a dude,” Rita says, despite ample evidence to the contrary. “Jordans are my favorite. I wear them all the time for shows. I can get girly-girly when I want to, but I can’t perform in heels. I would bust my face open on stage and we don’t want that.” Rita takes a deep breath and laces up her Nike trainers (that's Brit-speak for sneakers). She’s ready.
I can't perform in heels. I would bust my face open on stage and we don't want that.
“Rita always performs better under pressure,” says her older sister and road manager, Elena, a stunning brunette who still lives in the same three-bedroom flat in the West London counsel estates (a.k.a. the projects) where their family grew up. Rita had to move to her own place because ever since she racked up her second No. 1 hit in the UK—“R.I.P.” featuring Tinie Tempah topped the charts in May, following DJ Fresh’s “Hot Right Now,” on which Rita sings the hook—random people started ringing the doorbell asking for photos and dropping off CDs. “Nothing scary,” Elena adds coolly.
You want scary? Scary is when Jay-Z and Beyoncé pop into your dressing room 10 minutes before showtime. But Rita shook off the butterflies and nailed that performance a few months ago in New York—even singing a Destiny’s Child cover, much to B’s delight. So rocking the biggest stadium she’s ever set foot in should be no sweat. After that, all she has to do is translate her UK success to the States and head up Roc Nation’s British Invasion.
They say be careful what you wish for, but this is the life Rita Ora’s been dreaming of for as long as she can remember. At age 11 she was the girl at the neighborhood youth center who sang “Killing Me Softly” into a counselor’s camera phone. “He told me he knew somebody who knew somebody in the industry or whatever,” she recalls. “I said, ‘OK cool, play them this video.’” Nothing ever came of the impromptu demo but he still carries the clip around on his phone to inspire other kids.
When Rita starred in Cinderella at St. Cuthbert’s primary school, her music teacher told her parents that their daughter had a gift. She later enrolled at the prestigious Sylvia Young Theater School (Amy Winehouse’s alma mater). Rita went on to appear in the British smuggling flick Spivs at age 14, sang a duet with UK garage star Craig David at 16, and at 18 auditioned to represent Britain in 2009’s Eurovision Song Contest. That same year she was spotted at a Lykke Li gig where she connected with Jay Brown, who co-founded Roc Nation with Jay-Z in 2008. Before she knew it she was catching her first flight to NYC, where she met Jay, Ty-Ty, and the rest of la familia. Now she’s Roc Nation’s next big thing, joining a roster that includes J. Cole, Willow Smith, and Jay Electronica. Roc Nation also manages Rihanna, M.I.A., Santigold, and Shakira.
Everyone thought that Rihanna and I hated each other, but the whole thing was created by the media.
“When I first got signed I was this random girl from London,” she recalls. “I was thinking my whole world was going to be turned around. I thought I was gonna be on Oprah next week with a new single. Three years later I’m just starting to come out. I wanted to release everything I’d ever recorded, but I was lucky enough to have someone like Jay to say, ‘This isn’t good enough. You have to find yourself.’ It was the best advice he could have given me—to be patient.” While working on her debut album, Ora (due out this fall) she’s had the opportunity to work with an A-list creative team—songwriting by Drake, The-Dream, and Ester Dean, and production by Stargate, Diplo, Fraser T. Smith, and will.i.am.
Despite all the advantages that come with her Roc affiliation, Rita understands that the buck stops with her. “You can add as much production as you want but if the music is shit no one is gonna listen to it,” she says. “It’s important that you know yourself musically. I was always that girl who loved music and thought of music as an escape route.”
At age 16 Rita worked in a sneaker store on Portobello Road in West London. She grew up collecting Nike Airs and loving ’90s rap. “I’m the biggest Biggie fan,” she said during a showcase at SOB’s in New York last April, during which she threw on a Coogi sweater to perform the single she still calls “Party & Bullshit,” although it has been renamed “How We Do” for the benefit of pop radio programmers. “Diddy gave me the stamp of approval,” she says. “He said, ‘Thanks for honoring Biggie.’ And I said, ‘Are you crazy? Thanks for letting me.’”
Signing with the Roc has opened all kinds of doors—like this gig on the Coldplay tour. And then there was the time Jay-Z walked Rita into Z-100, the biggest pop radio station in America, for what was supposed to be a meeting and ended up getting “How We Do” played, plus an on-air interview on the spot. In September Rita will perform in Philadelphia at Jay’s Made in America festival. “It’s my first festival, so we’re gonna bring it all out. I might get, like, a Biggie hologram,” she jokes. But we all know the blueprint: every gift comes with a curse.
“Rita is the kind of artist who’s going to win by just being herself,” says Tyran “Ty-Ty” Smith, a partner in Roc Nation. The hard part, he says, is simply establishing her identity. “When Rihanna came out we heard the Beyoncé comparisons. People jump to that when it’s someone they don’t know. Like, ‘Oh, that’s that girl who wants to be Beyoncé.’ Now they’re saying the same thing about Rita, that she’s the new Rihanna. She just has to show them who she is and she will be fine.”
But Rita doesn’t mind the Rihanna comparisons one bit. “I admire Rihanna,” she says. “She works her ass off. She hasn’t had a break and she has given people hit after hit after hit. That work ethic and discipline is hardcore. That’s the kind of shit that I want to do. That I will do.”
When Ty-Ty celebrated his 40th birthday at London’s DSTRKT nightclub this May—right after Jay-Z and Kanye ripped the O2 Arena—Rita flew in from a Coldplay date in Madrid just for the occasion. Among the stars in the room was Rihanna, who planted a kiss on Rita’s cheek. “People were like, ‘What the fuck!’” Rita recalls, laughing at their supposed rivalry. “Everyone thought that we hated each other, but the whole thing was created by the media. That’s what’s so funny. She said, ‘Let’s just tweet this and get people mad.’” Rita sent out a photo of the kiss with the words “@rihanna hatin a$$ biatch!!! Mwah!!!!”
“We made a joke out of it,” Rita adds. “It’s love. Roc Nation is such an incredible, unique team, especially in the music industry. Everyone genuinely loves and cares about each other.”
Though he sees a bright future ahead for the young singer, Ty-Ty sounds a note of caution. “Rita makes friends easily,” he says. “That’s a good thing and it’s also a bad thing. Everybody in this business doesn’t have the best intentions, but she still thinks people are who they say they are. She’s going to take some knocks along the way and she’ll learn with time.”
Back at Emirates Stadium, Rita’s on stage performing her song “Roc the Life,” which she wrote with The-Dream. “Put your diamonds in the air / You can hate this all you want / But Roc is everywhere.” Putting her Jordans to the test, Rita runs back and forth, covering every inch of Coldplay’s stage, jumping in the air to emphasize key lines. Her voice rings out strong and her energy connects, even in this cavernous venue. “She’s so good at getting everyone involved and emotionally invested in her performance,” says Elena, who’s been watching the action from the opposite end of the stadium. “They have a good time ’cause she’s having so much fun.”
Jay and Kanye, their minds are on a different level. It’s out of this world how talented they are.
There are lots of hands in the air, but no one is more invested than Rita’s mum, Vera, who lip-synchs the words and mimics her daughter’s hand movements. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it,” she says after the show, her voice filled with emotion. “It’s like, that’s not my daughter! A true artist.”
Vera and her husband, Nick, emigrated from Kosovo in 1990 when Rita was a baby, getting out of the former Yugoslavia before conflict with the Serbs erupted into all-out war. After things calmed down, Rita and Elena began returning home to Pristina every year to visit their grandmother. Both girls speak Albanian, and they rep their homeland proudly.
Kosovo is definitely in the building tonight. Mantor and Zutzi, two childhood friends of Rita’s dad, are dancing, sweating, and enjoying Rita’s set to the extreme—perhaps more than a pair of grown men should. “Everybody who is Albanian around the world is proud of Rita,” explains Zutzi, who hosts a popular talk show in Kosovo. “Now, every day you put the radio on, there is Rita. She’s famous.”
“We just declared our independence in 2008,” says Mantor, lead singer of the Kosovar rock band the Grips. “The freedom to come to a show like this is what we were fighting for. Rita is gonna take Kosovo to the next level.”
Everything in Rita’s life seems to be going to the next level these days. She has a fake Twitter account (a fake Instagram account was recently shut down) and paparazzi follow her moves. “It happened so quickly I feel like it’s a dream,” she says. “I’m living something that I don’t think is real. But it is.”
Two weeks before the stadium gig, Rita had one of those moments: She and Rob Kardashian went on a double date with Kanye and Kim. “We had sushi,” she recalls calmly. “It was good fun. We spoke about music and all that.”
Rita met Rob Kardashian through his sisters at a Watch the Throne show in the States. Although he’s tweeted about how much he loves her, Rita’s taking it slow. Asked if a long-distance relationship is hard, she replies, “I mean, it’s not really a relationship. It’s not that intense. He’s a cool guy. We’re close. We’re good friends. I got his back and he’s got mine. To me, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from—if you’re a good person and you got my back, I got yours. It’s that easy for me.”
Right now, Rita’s more focused on learning all she can from the Roc brain trust. “Jay and Kanye, their minds are on a different level. It’s out of this world how talented they are.” Still she insists she’s no longer starstruck around her boss. “I was when I first got signed, knowing what he’s done and the empire he’s created,” she admits. “But he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He made me feel so at ease that I forgot he was Jay for a minute. He turned into this brother figure and an amazing boss.”
She says she admires Kanye for his enthusiasm most of all. “I remember him playing ‘Power’ for the first time and rapping it. I was amazed to see that he’s still that passionate. It was incredible.”
To whom much is given, much will be required. But if Rita’s feeling the pressure she’s not letting it show. After leaving the stadium stage, she finds Chris Martin of Coldplay waiting outside her dressing room. “Well done,” he tells her, adding that the band’s glad to have her along for the tour. On Coldplay’s 2009 tour, the opening act was Jay-Z. A cheeky question comes to mind and Miss Ora can’t resist asking: “So who’s a better supporting act—me or Jay?”
Martin laughs and dodges the question. “It’s not the same thing,” he says. Hey, you can’t blame a girl for trying.
WATCH RITA ORA'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:
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ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Matthew Henson. (HAIR) Paul Percival. (MAKEUP) Emma Osborne. FIRST, NINTH & ELEVENTH IMAGE: Cardigan by A Bathing Ape / Shorts by J Brand / Bracelets by Ben-Amun / Bangle by Cartier / Watch by Rolex / Necklaces and rings Rita’s Own. SECOND, THIRD, FOURTH SEVENTH & THIRTEENTH IMAGE: Sweater by Minimarket / Shorts by Monrow. FIFTH, EIGHTH, TENTH, TWELVETH & COVER IMAGE: Top, Skirt & Sneakers by adidas x Opening Ceremony / Bracelets by Ben Amun / Bangle by Cartier / Watch by Cartier. SIXTH IMAGE: Jacket by Opening Ceremony / Top by OndadeMar / Shorts by Augustin Teboul.