Photo Credit: DigitalSpy, Rihanna/Samsung
Rihanna has been at the top of her game for over 10 years. She was discovered at the age of 16 and signed a six album record deal with Def Jam in 2005. Her first album, Music Of The Sun, was promoted with lead single Pon de Replay, a dancehall track inspired by the reggae music she grew up listening to in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Despite the early influence of Caribbean music on Rihanna’s style, in order to appeal to the mainstream US market, she adapted the vowels of her patois accent to sound more American when singing and switched to releasing pop and R&B songs such as Umbrella and Take A Bow. In her decade long career, Rihanna has since made her name with this kind of music to become one of the best-selling artists of all time, with 14 number one singles and eight Grammy awards. However, in her eighth studio album, Anti, she deviates from her signature sound to pay tribute to her roots.
The lead single of Anti, Work, hit number one on the Billboard charts, a reggae-pop track that Rihanna described as being influenced by dancehall songs from the 90s. However it came with controversy. Rihanna’s use of her native patois dialect was criticised by listeners as being incomprehensible – which is where hypocrisy comes in. If it is racist to make fun of a Chinese or Latino person’s accent, surely it is equally offensive to be ridiculing Work for a similar use of local dialect, which in fact is completely cohesive with the genre of the track itself.
American viewers, accustomed to intrinsically connecting dancing with sex, were also shocked to see images of Rihanna whining against Drake in the video for Work. Opinion articles were written discussing the pair’s relationship, and the responsibility police took over Twitter with the moral high ground. This response completely overlooked the significance of whining in West Indian culture, where it is a dance form that accompanies calypso and soca music, and is seen as rhythmic rather than vulgar.
Furthermore, many mainstream critics initially defined Work as part of the tropical house wave, but Taj Ran of Billboard identified it instead as a single rooted in the dancehall music of Jamaica’s clubs. This divide highlights the simultaneous rise of tropical house music, popularised by white pop stars such as Justin Bieber, which coincides with the suppression of traditional West Indian musical genres such as dancehall and soca. Although cultural exchange and experimentation are certainly essential for musical evolution, as tropical house derives its sound from the influence of this music, it is somewhat insidious to suggest that a Caribbean artist such as Rihanna is inspired not by the music she grew up with, but the EDM stylings propagated by an Australian DJ.
Rihanna is such a key player in the American music market, that it’s perhaps too easy to forget that she isn’t American. Work is a homage to the music of Barbados, as over a decade into her illustrious career, Rihanna uses Anti to flip America’s expectations and carve out a new sound for herself, one that proudly displays her Bajan heritage.
She is not conforming to the new wave of tropical house music, but is changing the game, as she has throughout her career. In 2008 she switched her image from that of a Beyoncé-esque pop princess, using singles such as Disturbia and Russian Roulette to establish herself as the hard-edged, compelling artist we know today.
Rihanna infuses Work with the reggae sounds she grew up listening and dancing to, and in doing so creates the first dancehall track to hit number one on the Billboard charts since 2006, when her career was just beginning.