Makeba Riddick stepped off a plane in New York City, exhausted after spending weeks in London working with the Black Eyed Peas, only to get a call from her manager. The record label needed Riddick to fly to Milan immediately and cut a song with pop star Rihanna.
The song, "Live Your Life" — a single for the rapper T.I., featuring Rihanna, was almost finished, but the label wanted Riddick to write Rihanna's lyrics and help guide the young singer through her verse. Riddick threw a mini-temper tantrum, then took a deep breath and reluctantly boarded a plane. She had work to do.
"The label was telling me, 'If you nail this, it will be a No. 1 record — this will be T.I.'s biggest record,' " Riddick said. "I was like, 'OK, I have to nail this.' No pressure."
Jobs like this are fairly common for Riddick. Born and raised in West Baltimore's Edmondson Village, she has spent the past nine years writing lyrics and melodies for some of pop music's biggest stars. The 31-year-old has penned chart-topping singles and worked as a vocal coach, helping artists find the right voice for their songs.
A graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts and Berklee College of Music, Riddick has helped write some of the past decade's more conspicuous hits, including Beyonce's "Déjà Vu," Jennifer Lopez's "All I Have" and Rihanna's "Rude Boy." Riddick, who is signed with Roc Nation, also worked on Toni Braxton's new album, "Pulse," which debuted in the Top 10 this month.
"Working with her over the past five years has been nothing short of amazing," Jay Brown, president of Roc Nation, wrote in an e-mail. "I've witnessed firsthand Makeba's swift progression from a great songwriter to a chart-topping hit maker. Her keen sensibility as a writer combined with an incredible work ethic and generous spirit make her one of the best pop writers of our generation."
As far back as Riddick can remember, music has been a constant in her life. Before she took lessons or could read sheet music, she would sit at her grandparents' upright piano and improvise words and music.
"Every family gathering we had, we'd get her at the piano," said Riddick's aunt, Avalon. "We were always in awe of her talent."
Raised by her grandparents, Riddick began singing in the youth choir at Shiloh Christian Community Church. Eager to learn more about music, she took piano lessons, performed in talent shows and sang in recitals. She majored in voice at the Baltimore School for the Arts, singing arias and taking private instructions several times a week.
"I was always practicing, always rehearsing for something," she said. "It was music all day long."
As a teenager in the 1990s, Riddick immersed herself in the pop and R&B hits of the time. A fan of the rapper Nas, she wrote his lyrics into a notebook to better understand his rhymes and pacing. She closely followed the artists on Puff Daddy's label, Bad Boy Records, for whom she would later work.
Graduating from BSA at the age of 16, Riddick enrolled at Berklee, majoring in music management. There she learned how to build a song from scratch, layering the drum tracks, bass lines and vocals one by one. All the while, she was writing and recording her tunes, which she kept on a mix CD. After college, the 19-year-old Riddick moved to New York and shared her demo CD, which had about 17 tracks, with fellow songwriter Curtis Richardson.
"He was like, 'You're really gifted at this, and you need to take this seriously. I think you could really be successful one day,' " Riddick recalled. "I said, 'You think so? Me? You think I could have a song on the radio?' He was like, 'I really think you can, if you focus on it and get serious about it.' That's what I did."
Richardson and Riddick teamed up on a song called "All I Have," which was picked up by Jennifer Lopez and released as a single in early 2003. The song climbed to the No. 1 spot and stayed there for four weeks, catching the eye of Puff Daddy, who signed Riddick to a publishing deal.
"The rest is a blur," Riddick said.
Composing a song can be an intensely personal experience, Riddick said, and for a songwriting partnership to work, the artist has to feel comfortable with her. She likes to spend a day or two just hanging out with a musician before talking shop. Usually, Riddick will know right away if it's going to work or not. She and Beyonce hit it off immediately.
"I've never had more fun working with an artist," said Riddick, who now lives in Los Angeles. "It was like being 10 years old again. We were in the studio dancing, watching videos, having girl talk for hours until the early, early morning. It was awesome. Before we knew it, three weeks had gone by, and we had finished the album."
Released in 2006, Beyonce's "B'Day" debuted at No. 1 and went triple platinum. Riddick co-wrote the album's lead single, "Déjà Vu," as well as about a half-dozen other tracks.
Every time Riddick hears one of her songs on the radio, it's like the first time, she said. The thrill has never faded.
"It's surreal," she said. "You can't believe how this song or those lyrics we were playing around with has the whole world singing along. It's very exciting, every single time."
After writing hits for other artists, it's common for producers and songwriters to want to branch out and start a solo career. Producers such as Timbaland and Will.i.am have tried this, with mixed results. Riddick can't see herself releasing a solo album anytime soon.
"I don't crave that," she said. "Losing my privacy and losing my life? That's never been my deepest desire. My deepest desire is to share my hobby and my music with the world, since they seem to like it."
On the plane to work with Rihanna in Milan, Riddick pulled out a compact mirror and stared at her own reflection, searching for inspiration. Words began to come to her: "In a brand-new city / got my whole team with me / I do it how I wanna do / I'm living my life."
When it was released in 2008, the song went straight to No. 1.