How Rihanna's 'Work' Made Dancehall Reign in Pop (Again)
Rihanna's “Work,” currently spending its second week at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, isn’t your typical chart-topper. No, the Drake-assisted song isn’t part of a new genre that many in the mainstream media are calling “tropical house.” And no, it isn't one of the pop anthems we're used to from Rihanna, like her last album's lead single, "Diamonds.” As the first half of her ‘Work” video, filmed in the beloved Caribbean restaurant The Real Jerk in Toronto, makes explicit, Anti’s lead single is undeniably drenched in dancehall -- a genre with deep roots in Jamaica's club scene that spun off from reggae in the 1970s. The track is a proud, powerful reminder of the Barbados-born singer's West Indian roots -- and a milestone for dancehall: The last song in the genre to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 was Sean Paul's “Temperature” in 2006. Last year’s ubiquitous “Cheerleader” featured traces of singer Omi’s Jamaican roots, but it was undeniably a dance-pop song at heart. On the other hand, “Work,” is an interpolation of “Sail Away,” a 1998 dancehall riddim by Jamaican singer Richie Stephens and features Rihanna singing in patois.
Of course, the West Indian vibes of “Work” aren't new to Rihanna Inc., nor should it be to a Navy member or casual follower. Her first two albums -- 2005's Music of the Sun and 2006's A Girl Like Me -- were loaded with dancehall vibes that put her on the map, debuting at No. 10 and No. 5 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, respectively, the latter even going platinum. Her debut led with the infectious dancehall-influenced tune “Pon De Replay” -- a title that translates to "upon the replay" from Bajan Creole, the official language of Rihanna's native Barbados -- and was remixed by Elephant Man. Music of the Sun also featured dancehall-leaning tunes like “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No)” featuring vet Vybz Kartel and “Rush” featuring rapper Kardinal Offishall. Although her sophomore effort began to infuse more pop sounds, it still carried “Break It Off” featuring aforementioned dancehall king Sean Paul.
To lead off her third album Good Girl Gone Bad, Rihanna signaled a new direction -- and reached a new level of stardom -- with the Jay Z collaboration “Umbrella.” It was an edgy pop song with rap and rock touches, earning another No. 1 and a Grammy for best rap sung collaboration in 2008. Rihanna was also rallying up fist pumps with her stint with EDM, benchmarked by "We Found Love" featuring 2012's Calvin Harris (her longest-leading No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks) and 2011's David Guetta collaboration "Who's That Chick?" as well as her own track "Where Have You Been." Five years later, she led her seventh studio effort Unapologetic (which boasted a whirlwind seven-city, seven-day stint called the 777 tour) with the power ballad “Diamonds,” also a multiplatinum success.
However, despite becoming a pop powerhouse, she still brought her island influences with her to the top. With 2009’s infectious “Rude Boy” -- a pop record that uses West Indian slang -- and 2010’s reggae-influenced track “Man Down,” Rihanna accompanied both singles with visuals displaying the vivid fashion, dance styles and dialects of the West Indies. Even her Instagram binge during her 2015 trip to the Barbados Cropover festival -- an annual celebration of the local sugar cane harvest that wraps in the provocatively beautiful Carnival/Kadooment parade -- was a sexy glimpse into the island nation she calls home.
Director X, the veteran music video director who helmed the first half of the "Work” visuals, says his vision and mission was clear: bring West Indian culture front and center.
"I'm a West Indian; my mother's from Trinidad," he told Billboard. "We're a proud culture and we love people to be a part of it and we're also a worldwide culture so there's always a part of us that's proud to put ourselves on display."
While mainstream critics may be uncomfortable with Rihanna’s gyrations or misconstrue her patois as gibberish, “Work” -- much like Beyonce’s “Formation” -- is an example of an unapologetic black woman proudly showing her heritage at a time when our politics are dominated by #BlackLivesMatter and Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic and misogynistic tirades. Black culture is often only recognized after it’s been appropriated by the mainstream, but Rihanna puts it front and center.
“Work” is certainly an achievement for the singer -- Rihanna now has 14 No. 1s, one more than Michael Jackson -- but it’s also a proud moment for West Indian people.