It’s not really fair to look to YouTube comments for insightful criticism, but they often offer a glimpse into the raw, immediate reactions people have to pop culture. Many of the comments on the music video for Rihanna’s song “Work” are some variation of the complaint, “This is the dumbest song I’ve ever heard. She’s just spouting gibberish and baby noises. I hate this generation’s talentless, sex-obsessed music.”
Of course popular songs have never been used as metaphors for sex. “Real music,” by bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, never discussed topics as immoral as sex and drug use. But modern hypocritical standards of morality aside, most people who make those comments are missing the point of the song entirely.
Like much of the other non-English lyrics in “Work,” “Meh nuh cyar if him” is Caribbean, linguistically related to English but with its own grammatical structure. What sounds like “gibberish” to confused listeners is Rihanna singing in an entirely different language. In fact, the name of the song, as well as the most common word in it, “work,” is Jamaican Patois for sex.
Like the majority of popular music, “Work” is a metaphor for sex, told through a story of two lovers. It’s used both in its Patois meaning as well as literally. “You need to get done, done, done, done at work, come over,” Drake sings at the beginning of his verse, later finishing the verse with “Now you need to forward and give me all the work, work, work, work, work.”
The song is far from shallow; it’s a reinterpretation of the age-old love song, with the theme of miscommunication between lovers told literally through a language difference. So why is appreciating Rihanna’s music so much work for some people?
As Americans we often forget that songs can even be in languages other than English. A quick look at the top charts for songs in other countries usually shows a blend of native language and English songs; Germany, for instance, has “Die Immer Lacht,” “Stressed Out,” “Stimme,” and “Love Yourself” on the top.
For most of the world, native artists harmoniously coexist with superstar artists like Justin Bieber and Twenty One Pilots. English speaking countries, especially the United States, are unique because their native artists are the superstars.
What this means for an artist like Rihanna is that her Barbadian cultural heritage is erased in the public eye. Whether she wants to include her culture in her music or not, most people won’t recognize it, and those that do will assume it’s a mistake, a flaw in songwriting or laziness in singing. People will sooner jump to the conclusion that she’s failing to speak English before considering she might just be speaking a different language.
It’s exceedingly rare for any modern pop song to have truly lazy lyrics. Musicians have legions of songwriters and producers behind them that carefully craft a song that pushes the right “image” for the artist. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that anything a major artist comes out with is simply too much of an investment for them not to take their time perfecting.
“Work” is an example of such investment into a deceptively simple premise. The baseline is a simple dancehall riddim, an element of Caribbean music that is often mistaken for “tropical house.” Again, the Americentric assumption overrides the artistry; tropical house came from dancehall, not the other way around, and when Rolling Stone called “Work” a “tropical house-flavored track” they provided a clear example of this lack of understanding.
You wouldn’t call the Wu-Tang Clan’s socially conscious music “Macklemore-flavored” just because the latter claimed to be inspired by the former. So why is it OK with Rihanna?
“Work” is by no means a perfect song. “If you had a twin, I would still choose you” might be the worst pickup line I’ve ever heard, but Drake himself still contributes linguistically rich lyrics and Jamaican words in his verse.
At the end of the day, it’s not supposed to be a particularly philosophical song. “Work” is about sex and love, and like most other songs of its kind it wraps those themes up in artistic metaphor and innuendo.
For a depressing number of listeners, though, those themes are never considered or even registered. If we can’t open our minds and ears to different languages in our music, we miss out on the cultural enrichment they bring with them. So if you haven’t taken the time to find out what Rihanna’s saying in “Work,” well, “When you ah guh learn, learn, learn, learn, learn?”
Reach columnist Alex Bruell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BruellAlex