Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Put your mind to work on this one.
Here we are, almost at the end of Q1 for 2016, and two of the year’s most speculated “will they/won’t they?” albums are already out (ish): Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Rihanna’s ANTI. And what’s more, both these albums feature truly compelling music that’ll live long passed this year. How lucky we are to be alive right now. ANTI in particular has proved to be rewarding, including speculation about which of these unexpected turns was going to be the album’s big hit. Was it going to be the doo-wop soul song? What about the un-Mustardwave DJ Mustard track, or the arty R&B one? Nah, turns out hits aren’t always surprises: ANTI‘s first hit is the song with a Drake feature.
“Work” is technically ANTI‘s lead single. In case you missed it in January, “Work” came out early on the 27th with ANTI itself out that night, quickly eclipsing any discussion of the song as a standalone. What’s lost in the shuffle now is that half a day where “Work” was all we had for ANTI, and people could not get their heads around this song. Hype for a Rihanna banger was arguably at an all time high, and here she was dropping a slack, dancehall and patois filled, unhurried song that doesn’t sound like nearly any Riri single preceding it. It threw tons of fans off. It threw me off on the first listen, but honestly, I’ve always thought “Work” worked.
Getting into “Work” doesn’t require managing your expectations as much as it does recalibrating them. Rihanna single from, say, “Only Girl (In the World)” onward have been designer, speaker-destroying blockbusters; something like “Where Have You Been?” is still going to sound fit to fill a stadium when you hear it on the PA at Walgreens. “Work” comes from somewhere else entirely: with its gently thumping bass, enveloping synths, dancehall beat and flourishes, it’s a song that isn’t meant to club you over the head with sound as much as it’s meant to pull you into its own rhythms and bounce. Producer Boi-1da, a guy whose rise is inextricably tied to Drake’s, is great at this kind of inviting, electronic introspection. “Work”‘s not a revolution, but a revelation.
While that beat is part of why “Work” works, it lies at Rihanna’s feet to make the song hit home. More than anything, she sounds natural and unguarded here, which makes a whole lotta sense for “Work” when you check the lyric sheet. “All that I wanted from you was to give me/Something that I never had” isn’t supposed to come out with the same force as “Bitch better have my money” and the less showy performance is what puts “Work” above, like “You Da One.” And then there’s that hook, which is just fun. Turn that repetition over in your mouth and try not to smile or get it stuck in your head after the first full chorus; it’s just so playful. The repetition’s great, and by using Caribbean terms and Patois, the song becomes more personal (all of which are so vital that “Work” sounds kind of stupid without them).
While Rihanna and the beat sound better and better, Drake’s verse on “Work” just gets weirder and sillier the more I hear it. A big chunk of that comes down to timing: Drake is in full “I’m a trust fund, baby you can trust me” singy Drake mode here, as opposed to the last year he’s spent as bearded, buff, mean Drake. Not only is it a switch in personas, but lyrically (“If you had a twin, I would still choose you”–Aubrey, you charmer) and melodically his verse on “Work” feels like a weak regression; I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if it comes out that this was an old Take Care verse dusted off. I suppose you could make the argument that this clumsiness is by design since Rihanna is singing about longing for a deeper connection with the sex, while Drake’s verse is the lyrical equivalent of “wyd?” but that doesn’t mean I’m satisfied listening to it.
As of writing this, “Work” is entering its second month at number one. It debuted in the top ten, but as with everything ANTI, it was up in the air as to where it would go once the “OMG NEW RIRI” sheen wore off. But, the song’s proved to have serious staying power since then, and one negligibly clunky Drake verse aside, I like having it around. “Work” also represents a step forward for Rihanna as an artist. It’s worth noting that she started in the mid-’00s heyday of commercial singles before pop had to sound personal, and she’s been dinged as time’s marched on for not bringing any personality. By comparison, the Rihanna we see on “Work” might not be “the real her” necessarily, but it’s still more personable than most of her previous output. It’s growth, and still sounds good. “Work” is the sound of new ideas in the air.