Don’t worry, we didn’t accidentally publish this post too early and take it down, only to re-post it a few hours later in full…
Katherine St Asaph: Rihanna is now decidedly not a pop star, which is convenient, because the idea of the pop star has all but imploded. It’s also convenient because Rihanna’s presence on pop radio has also imploded, even after donning a Met Ball-sized Ed Sheeran costume on “FourFiveSeconds.” Something about the release of Anti has probably also imploded — it’s weird reading people ascribe unflappable creative control to Rihanna when nothing about the Anti campaign suggests any such thing. Even the title Anti suggests a hasty repositioning: “anti” as in anti-event album (something last done by Miley’s Dead Petz, though I get that people want to forget that exists.) What’s likely going on instead is that Anti was cobbled together from whichever tracks weren’t scrapped, dated or unfinished — “Desperado” is why Justine Skye got “Bandit,” I bet — with its best track released (again!) as a snippet. Even “Work” is evidence: a pretty common theme for lead singles (either actual lead singles or lead-singles-via-retcon) by artists in career trouble, one we last saw by Britney; at best they’re viscerally determined, at worst they sound like the disembodied direction of some industry asshole, given to the artist to sing. But Anti largely works, and so does “Work.” Rihanna mines so much petulant tension out of a steely, brittle dancehall track (an astonishing number of peanut gallerists seem to be unable to recognize it, or patois); whether you think it’s biographical or not, it’s palpable. Drake is at his Drakest, i.e. a making-you-set-your-Gchat-status-to-“busy” elemental, but he doesn’t ruin it anywhere near as much as “What’s My Name,” so he’s fine. Will it work out for Rihanna? Hard to say — even the timely production (those Tinashesque woodwinds!) is deliberately prickly. But it’s Rihanna at her most interesting, which counts for a lot.
Alfred Soto: I’m having a decent time until The Drake Drone drags Rihanna through one of its psychodramas (“I spilled all my emotions tonight, I’m sorry” — I’m sure you are). But her verses at least coincide with an ethos committed to the issuing of product, often expedient. Not this time. “Work” represents one of the few persuasive moments when her Caribbean roots influence her vocalizing.
Cassy Gress: I’m thinking about “7/11” here, and it’s not that they sound alike, it’s just that this sounds like it was put together in 30 minutes in the studio, except moreso. I wasn’t really invested in Rihanna having a particular sound or anything, and I mean, the patois is fine, the dry nasal vocals are not new to her, and I sort of like the beat, but the way this melody is written, it sounds like the entire thing with the exception of maybe the chorus was ad-libbed. And underenunciated. And lazily edited. wer-wer-wer-wa-wa.
Jonathan Bogart: Nobody but Rihanna could get away with such mushy syllablization, dragging her voice out with such a concerted lack of effort that it stands as a raised middle finger to the pop-fan ethical ecosystem that demands hard work, the performance of effort, in exchange for respect. Rihanna is above respect; unlike Nicki Minaj (who shows how much she actually cares with every vibrating molecule of her overachieving theater-kid being), she doesn’t just claim not to give a fuck. Which, since dudes have made mush-mouth vocalizing over futuristic beats a point of slacker pride for basically ever, is its own form of triumph. Drake, with his actorly enunciation, sounds like a positive Poindexter next to her, and the pointillist dancehall beneath them both suggests a robotic future in which Rihanna’s drawling refusal to be organized is the only human element left.
Crystal Leww: “Work” doesn’t really work until Drake’s part comes on, but as soon as you hear his verse once, the whole thing just clicks in a way that is impossible to forget. While Future became more well known for his stream of consciousness, slurred rambles, Drake adopted the delivery cadence and did it better, with instantly more quotable lines, a more sung rather than slurred vocal style, and a vulnerability that appeals to many women. In 2013, “Hold On, I’m Going Home” was the thesis for Drake’s Winning But Lonely schtick, and here, Rihanna’s adopted the attitude from her point of view. While there are lonelier moments on Anti, there are few moments that are so desperately trying to feign not-giving-a-fuck-let’s-party quite like “Work.” There are steel drums in the background, for fuck’s sake! But she sounds so lonely at times — “You took my heart on my sleeve for decoration” — before burying herself back in her work, work, work, work, work, work like any girl who is trying to desperately ignore that heartbreak. This is not the big Rihanna single that soundtracks the summer that she’s become known for, but “Work” functions better for sloshing around on wet February sidewalks anyway.
Patrick St. Michel: It’s easy to miss all the sadness oozing out of the edges of “Work,” given how much warmth Rihanna’s voice gives to words repeated over and over and over. Yet each listen — and the minimal dancehall-inspired beat and the way those six “works” just get lodged in your head guarantee multiple plays — reveals the tension underneath, how those repeated words suddenly feel like record scratches reflecting the inability to move forward. And beneath all that “work” is exhaustion pushing up against passion. Drake stumbles in as the physical manifestation of a Leisure Suit Larry dialogue box, yet it actually works wonderfully here given the emotional push-pull going on. But ultimately this shines because of Rihanna, who turns the feeling of frustration into a great pop song.
Leonel Manzanares: Dancehall Rihanna will always be my favorite version of her, and that bouncy riddim, combined with Boi-1da’s muted synths, gives enough space for both RiRi and Drake to make their natural chemistry shine. It doesn’t move much, though, but that chill Caribbean vibe is always welcome.
Brad Shoup: One of the many great things about being Rihanna is that you never really have event singles. “Work” sees her unspool her thoughts exactly as she wants to: the measuring belongs to Drake, who doesn’t really belong here, not at this energy level anyway. The Sail Away riddim is trimmed for the current, tropical climate; she’s free to strut from stem to stern.
Thomas Inskeep: I love the way the “Sail Away” riddim is turned inside out for the super-stripped-down digital dancehall of “Work,” and also the way Rihanna’s both instantly recognizable here and a bit of a cipher, allowing her voice to be heavily processed and filtered at various points. “Pon de Replay” always felt like fake “island” music to me, a cheap cash-in on her Caribbean-ness. This, on the other hand, sounds like she’s proudly embracing who she is. Drake helicopters in for a verse about — I have no idea, but he doesn’t distract, at least. I’m enamoured by how deceptively simple the sum of these parts sounds.
Will Adams: “Work” sounds like it’s always climbing, from the low-end kick drums slowly working their way in to the mix to the unstable chord progression inching upwards toward (but never reaching) any tonic. Things like this, as well as Rihanna’s slurred delivery and the obligatory presence of Drake, made “Work” an underwhelming lead single. But taken in the context of Anti, it worms its bleak way into the endearing mess of an album.
Megan Harrington: Anti is raw, unpolished, rough, and loose. It’s a mess. But messes aren’t without appeal, and it’s not like the criminally botched rollout didn’t prepare every fan, critic, and 20-something living in Brooklyn for a mess. For years the internet at large has salivated after, practically worshiped, certainly canonized Rihanna’s street style. It’s an enormous down jacket that swallows her whole body but for two tiny feet with six thin straps securing stiletto heels. It’s a baby pink full suit with a baby pink fur shawl draped across her arms and around her back. It’s wine colored lipstick the texture of velvet. It’s always something different, sometimes immediately confusing because in the world, the one I travel through where every lumpy body is swaddled in poly-cotton blends, no one even dares to try Rihanna’s taste on for size. It’s well understood that she’s the only person with enough presence to fall on the right side of the style/costume divide. On “Work” Rihanna offers little more than that presence. The patois is her prerogative, on a song that generates so little momentum it sounds like another cut corner. She’s here, and even with so little of herself invested she overshadows Drake and Boi-1da. Rihanna, in all her magnetic disarray, is the only compelling aspect of this song.