Here are three things that Rihanna does not have time for. One: the craze for soaking hair extensions in apple cider vinegar before braiding them. More comfortable, yes, but, as she asks me incredulously, “And then smell like what? A fricking mothball?” Two: sleep. Rather than a traditional sleep pattern she prefers to take “pockets”, which are more compatible with her creative rhythms, and which also explains why it’s gone midnight in Los Angeles when we meet. Three: fussiness. When she arrives, having been absorbed in a writing project, she has not eaten. She is offered the world: takeout from any restaurant in LA? A high-end, healthy ready-meal? Or whatever is lying around in the room, pretzels perhaps? She goes for the latter. “I don’t care,” she shrugs.

I am sitting on an expansive sofa in the Hollywood office of Roc Nation’s co-founder Jay Brown, drinking one of his fine bottles of red wine, a 1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As we wait for Rihanna to arrive – which, in line with her notorious timekeeping, takes a good few hours – he shows me round the Roc Nation war room. It’s both minimalist (pared back, industrial, clean) and very extra. There are poster-sized prints of the star everywhere. Don’t you have other artists? I ask him. “Yeah, but Rih is my first child,” he tells me. “I’ve been with her from day one.”

Rihanna is surprised by the photos, too. Her arrival is announced by a commotion outside the door, where she has spotted a grand, photographic triptych of herself from her seventh album, Unapologetic. In the pictures, her hair is in the black pixie crop synonymous with the record, and she’s at different stages of lighting a cigarette. “You copied that from me!” she playfully accuses Jay of the artwork. When she notices me, she goes a bit shy, entering the room with more of a tentative step than a regal sweep. I go and give her a hug, and she looks grateful for the icebreaker, then stands back, lavishing praise on my braids, telling me I am beautiful. “But you are Rihanna,” I want to scream. “Officially, frequently, described as the most beautiful woman in the world. I have spent years admiring you…”

That Rihanna is, in real life, bashfully generous in new situations, only adds to the addictive quality of her charm. I can’t stop looking at her. She’s wearing the two-tone oversized trench-parka from her latest Fenty drop – a calf-length khaki coat with contrasting oversized pockets and hood, plus a drawstring waist for the trademark curvy silhouette. In her ears are simple diamond studs, her hair in asymmetric cornrows, with one sweeping elegantly away from her face. Eventually, she peels off the coat to reveal a black Balenciaga tracksuit, her imposing presence rendering it somehow majestic. She looks like a woman who has mastered living in her own skin, who has nothing to hide.

As we start to settle in, Brown takes Rihanna over to a digital monitor that measures her reach in real time. Imagine the wall-mounted terminals financial traders use to gauge the markets, only this is the market of Riri. According to Brown’s data, in the past seven days her social media following has grown by 0.1 per cent, taking it to 339.7 million, while her Twitter, Instagram and Facebook mentions sit at 734,000, meaning 2.9 billion accounts worldwide currently have eyes on Rihanna.

Many of the messages are wishing her a happy birthday – the week before we meet, she turned 32. But most are referencing her recent speech at the NAACP Image Awards, which took place in Pasadena, California. As she accepted the President’s Award, previous recipients of which include Muhammad Ali, she issued a powerful demand.

“We can’t let the desensitivity seep in. How many of us in this room have colleagues and partners and friends from other races, sexes, religions?” she asked, before invoking some of the tragedies that have become closely associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. “When we’re marching and protesting and posting about the Michael Brown Jrs and the Atatiana Jeffersons of the world, tell your friends to pull up!”

My feed was alive, too, not just with praise for Rihanna’s message, but for the poise and grace of its delivery; many commenting on how proud they felt to watch her journey from sun-kissed island-beats siren to businesswoman, creative and activist. Rihanna says she hasn’t watched her speech back yet. “I can’t listen to my voice, you know.” I’m taken aback by the idea that Rihanna, her voice omnipresent in our culture, shares the broadcaster’s familiar dread at hearing herself speak.

“Oh, I’m nervous before even getting in the car to go to something,” she says. “It can be devastating. And when I pull up to the red carpet, I’m like…” she imitates crisis breathing. “Are you kidding me? I left the Grammys one time. Left! In the middle of my hair and make-up. My hair half up, half of my lash on…” It was 2016 and she had been due to perform “Kiss It Better” from her Anti album. At the time she was said to have left because of issues with her voice, but anxiety can be just as flooring. She laughs about it now, but she wants me to know it’s harder for her than it looks. “Being on camera, being in a room full of celebrities is still not normal for me, by the way.”

Rihanna is, she believes, at the beginning of a new era, conscious of a new decade and her own proliferating identities. Foremost is a description she uses with ease: “businesswoman”. As we speak, she is poised to release a long anticipated new album, to cement the success of her new luxury fashion house Fenty Maison (the first female-fronted LVMH brand created from scratch), to mark the continued ascendance of her lingerie brand Savage x Fenty and make-up industry game-changer Fenty Beauty, which is imminently expanding into skincare.

In all these endeavours, she is utterly nomadic, juggling her business concerns while living between London, where she feels at her most creative; Paris, where she is most “fashion”; Barbados, where she is closest to family; and Mexico, where she is most relaxed. “I just love Mexico. I really need to do my DNA test,” Rihanna laughs. Maybe you were Mexican in a past life? “Yeah,” she smiles, “maybe I was an agave plant.” I ask her if she likes agave. “Er, no,” she says, as if that’s a stupid question. “I like tequila.”

Here of all places, at her record company’s offices, it’s hard to ignore the small matter of her next music project – nicknamed R9, because it will be her ninth album – the absence and delay of which has been tirelessly debated by her army of stans, The Navy. “I can’t say when I’m going to drop,” she says (it could even be out by the time you read this). “But I am very aggressively working on music,” she adds, coyly.

What can we expect? “I don’t want my albums to feel like themes,” she says, taking a sip of wine. “There are no rules. There’s no format. There’s just good music, and if I feel it, I’m putting it out.” Does that mean that, contrary to reports, it’s not going to be a reggae album, I ask, trying to hide my disappointment. Rihanna chuckles. “Oh no, that is happening,” she reassures me. But on this, as in life, she won’t be pinned down. “I feel like I have no boundaries. I’ve done everything – I’ve done all the hits, I’ve tried every genre – now I’m just, I’m wide open. I can make anything that I want.”

This partly explains why Rihanna appears to have found a counter-intuitive safe haven in the relentless worlds of fashion and beauty. Launching Fenty Maison last year made her the first black woman to lead a major luxury fashion house. “There are so many firsts [in the creation of Fenty],” wrote The New York Times when the announcement was made, “it’s hard to keep track.”

Fenty Maison’s look is peak Rihanna, the personification of what playwright Jeremy O Harris called a “casual immensity”. Its style blends Barbados, Brooklyn, Brixton and Bel Air, and somehow makes everything feel disruptive, an effect greater than the sum of its collective knit-dress or parachute-boot parts. One of her missions has been to subvert the usual luxury fashion model, and to “drop” new pieces directly to consumers on the Fenty website, rather than waiting six months from catwalk to sale. It seemed like a good idea at the time, she tells me. “It is so easy to put something together for a runway, because you have six months to perfect it in production. It’s so much more challenging to create something in a short amount of time and it be perfect.”

Of course, it has to be perfect. “I refuse to release anything that is not up to par with my quality level,” she says. “The angle of a hem, the size of a sleeve, the stitch… If it’s not the right stitch that I want.”

The first collection was an ode to the Grandassa Models – young black women who, in New York from the early 1960s, promoted the Black is Beautiful movement with natural hair and Afrocentric clothing. To coincide with the launch she shared a vintage image, taken by influential photographer Kwame Brathwaite, on her Instagram. It showed models in Harlem on Marcus Garvey Day, positioned in front of a poster that read: “Buy Black.”

“Being the first black woman to lead a luxury house, especially under LVMH, it was a huge deal to see him just encourage people to buy black,” Rihanna tells me. “I felt connected to it, and knowing why really made me feel like there’s no way I can ignore this.”

Perhaps it’s because there is as much a political message as there is a fashion mission behind Fenty Maison that the designer feels her bar for quality must be set unambiguously high. The first pieces for 2020 were themed “freedom”, and worn by a cast that the brand described as “beautifully free and fearless creatives”: Amy Sall, an Afro-diasporic cultural entrepreneur and activist; Kai-Isaiah Jamal, a trans model; Alexandra Genova, a journalist of Native American heritage; and Amrit, an artist and musician who used to live on the streets.

In fact, Rihanna’s connections are more personal and complex than they are often portrayed. It is well documented that the star was born and raised in Barbados, but her mother, Monica, was an immigrant to the Caribbean island from Guyana, the former British colony in South America. Rihanna tells me that Guyanese immigrants were unpopular in Barbados when she was growing up. “The Guyanese are like the Mexicans of Barbados,” she says. “So I identify – and that’s why I really relate and empathise with Mexican people or Latino people, who are discriminated against in America. I know what it feels like to have the immigration come into your home in the middle of the night and drag people out.”

“Not my mother, my mother was legal,” she is careful to clarify, “but let’s just say I know what that fight looks like. I’ve witnessed it. I’ve been in it. I was probably, what, eight-years-old when I experienced that in the middle of the night. So I know how disheartening it is for a child – and if that was my parent that was getting dragged out of my house, I can guarantee you that my life would have been a shambles.”

“So when I see these injustices happening, it’s hard to turn a blind eye,” Rihanna continues. “It’s hard to pretend it’s not happening. The things that I refuse to stay silent on, these are things that I genuinely believe in.”

And not just in America. Living in London has, Rihanna says, given her a different perspective on the global struggle against racism and injustice. “I think police brutality is probably extremely severe in America, but racism is alive everywhere. Everywhere,” she emphasises. “It’s the same [in the UK]. It’s either blatant, which is becoming more and more of a norm, or it’s underlying, where people don’t even know they’re being obvious about it. You know, it’s just a subconscious layer that’s embedded from their entire core.”

It’s the first sense I get in person that Rihanna’s gentle manner belies a steeliness, a sense not of her brand or a strategy to impress but of the values that actually make her tick. Her scale as a change-maker is a phenomenon of the age. When her lingerie company Savage x Fenty staged its first fashion show at New York Fashion Week last year, it was a case study in smart product design and clever pricing; when you first sign up, you are offered two bras for £29, full-price sets start at £15. But the real change – witnessed at its immersive launch show, which also streamed on Amazon – is who can, and who would want, to buy it.

From the start, Savage x Fenty, which ships to 210 countries, asserted its relevance to a wide range of women – be they trans, disabled or curvy – by casting models from a variety of communities. It doesn’t feel like tokenism when Rihanna does it. Even before the brand launched, fans knew it would offer sizes from XS to 3XL, while placing itself on the right side of that treacherous line between exploiting female sexuality and convincing us that dressing it up in scalloped lace bras, sheer, racy shorts and crotchless bikinis is an act of empowerment. It is already said to be worth an estimated $150 million.

Admittedly, this is relatively small fry compared with Fenty Beauty, which Rihanna founded almost three years ago and is now a market colossus worth some $3 billion. What’s more, “the Fenty effect” – other make-up brands, long guilty of neglecting women of colour by offering few, if any, deeper shades, suddenly upped their diversity game – helped to establish 40 shades as a new industry standard. But Rihanna is reluctant to celebrate herself. “I’m shocked by people saying, ‘Oh my god, what made you think of making make-up for black girls?’” She continues, “I’m like, ‘What? You thought this was like, a marketing strategy? Like I’m a genius?’ It’s shocking most of the time,” she says. “Then it turns into disappointment that this is groundbreaking right now. In my mind, this was just normal.”

Is it really true that she rewrites all of the copy on Fenty Beauty product labels? “Oh yeah! I write all of the copy for the websites, the product descriptions, product names, the colour names…” she confirms. Doesn’t she have a huge team doing all this for her? “I do have a huge team, but I just don’t necessarily think their tone is mine. I’d feel like a fraud selling something that I can’t stand by.”

Next up, the launch of her full skincare line, Fenty Skin. So far fans have had to content themselves with a Pro Kiss’r Scrub and Balm “lip prep” duo, and her bestselling shimmering Body Lava oil. But Rihanna says she has had to push herself to achieve the same level of perfection. “Skincare, it’s the truth. It either works or it doesn’t. There’s nowhere to hide.” For a moment she looks concerned.

For the last three years, Rihanna has mostly lived in London, where she says she loves to record music and generally create. The notorious party girl is a little less committed these days, and she takes it upon herself to provide a disclaimer as to why, when she does go out, it’s with the fanciest of crowds. “I like it because they’re too bougie to give a shit about me. When I walk into those places, I am invisible. And nothing makes me feel better than being invisible.” Where would she like to be going if visibility weren’t an issue? “I’d rather go to Brixton,” she laughs. “But if I do that now, and I try to get some Jamaican food, it’s going to be an event, you know? So if I want a night off, I go hang with the people I would never hang with. And I just, I’m just in my bubble. Which I really enjoy about London.”

She says that she can feel that this is the beginning of a new phase. Her long-term relationship with the Saudi billionaire businessman Hassan Jameel (conducted largely away from the media’s obsessive gaze) recently ended, and her attitude is no-nonsense. “Since I turned 32, I’m realising life is really short,” she says. “You don’t have a lot of time to tolerate shit, you know? You put so much on your plate. When you’re overwhelmed, you need to start cutting things out. And I’m overwhelmed too much,” she says. “What’s happening now is that I’m going back to black and white. My grey area is shutting down.”

Rihanna’s plate is full and spinning. It’s now close to 4am, and whether it’s her Fenty Match Stix concealer, or her famous energy levels, she shows no signs of fatigue. She explains her views on her work-life balance – ie that there isn’t one, because the two things are the same. Her team, a core group of women who are as sociable as they are serious, work where she works, which is everywhere. In place of the partying at night, she now simply chooses to work with a drink in her hand.

“It’s true,” Rihanna laughs. “We will work and work and work. And then we get to this plateau and we’re like, ‘OK, we’re either going to bed or we could keep working.’ And then we’re like, ‘Hey, is it shot o’clock?’ Then everybody takes a shot. Then we’re like, ‘OK, we need to pick it up.’ Everybody does a shot of espresso, then we turn some music on and then we’re like, ‘Keep working.’” I can’t keep a look of concern from my face. Is that sustainable? “Oh, no!” she exclaims. “I’m working like this now so that I don’t have to in the future.”

“I know I will want to live differently,” she continues. The main difference she has in mind is children. When I ask her where she sees herself in 10 years, she says, in a distinctively Bajan tone of disbelief, “Ten years? I’ll be 42! I’ll be ancient.” She playfully ignores my outrage (I’m almost 40 myself) at this idea. “I’ll have kids – three or four of ’em.”

And if you haven’t met the right person, I venture, would you do it on your own? “Hell, yeah,” comes the unequivocal response. “I feel like society makes me want to feel like, ‘Oh, you got it wrong…’ They diminish you as a mother if there’s not a dad in your kids’ lives. But the only thing that matters is happiness, that’s the only healthy relationship between a parent and a child. That’s the only thing that can raise a child truly, is love.”

It all boils down to love for Rihanna. Fenty Beauty is, she says, one long love letter to her mother – who, when she was a child, she would watch apply make-up. Yet, I’m left trying to understand how this person who, from the age of 15, grew up under the toxic pressures of fame and press scrutiny, seems so unaffected, so full of light.

It seems the truth for Rihanna is she is the one that got away. “You’re supposed to go down this road – it’s a matter of time. You’re a child star. You’re a one-hit wonder,” she says, wistfully. “All these things just seep into you, and after a while it got me to this place of, like, I turned into a savage. Young Hollywood? That was nothing new to me. That was my house.”

Dawn is approaching now, and I begin to grasp that I have spent the night with a woman who is honest – with the world and with herself. And it is this quality that not only sets Rihanna apart, but may well be the secret to her success. “I’ve always searched for what I can hold on to in terms of sanity and loyalty. I’ve always searched for what’s real.”