There’s something of a middle finger about the title of Rihanna’s stark new single ‘Work’. It’s been more than three years since her last album, 2012’s ‘Unapologetic’, and in the face of public outcry over what could be the longest album promo campaign in history – ‘Anti’ has been on the cards for more than a year now, unbelievably – unapologetic she remains. “Work, work, work, work, work” is what the past three years have been to her. Rihanna doesn’t waste her time. As she’s said of the forthcoming record, “I wanted songs that I could perform in 15 years,” she says. “I want to make songs that are timeless.”
Is ‘Work’ timeless? Is anything we’ve heard so far from ‘Anti’? Out of more than 30 tracks to be registered by the 27-year-old Barbadian pop maverick, until today we’d heard only three official ones, and ‘Work’ sits in a different space to all of them. It’s colder than the Gospel-tinged cut featuring Kanye and Paul McCartney, ‘FourFiveSeconds’; tipsier than piano-led politics jam, ‘American Oxygen’; more casually brutal than revenge anthem ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ – which means ‘Anti’ is looking like an increasingly disparate record.
Of those three preceding singles, ‘BBHMM’’s immediacy is the clear winner, but ‘Work’ is also an undeniable single. There’s its bare, understated synth backing track produced by Drake/Minaj regular, Boi-1da. There’s Drake’s starring role, with slightly lame lyrics possibly co-written by an astounding eight people. And then there’s Rihanna’s own woozy vocals, which stir near-inaudible lyrics into her casual brags. “Nobody touch me in a crisis”, she ponders. “You see me do me dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt”. ‘Work’ isn’t an explicitly populist or easy move – and even if it doesn’t fire on all pop cylinders in the same way as we might have expected, that doesn’t mean its underground vibe doesn’t work just as well. Rihanna still sounds like a boss.