When Rihanna first dropped the song “Work,” you probably saw approximately one thousand tweets by people who thought they were being clever talking about how she wasn’t saying words. The lyrics were apparently so difficult to understand, as a matter of fact, that there was an entire genre of YouTubers, almost exclusively blonde and white, inventing their own lyrics to ruinous effect.
Even some music critics didn’t quite know how to approach “Work.” Pitchfork described the lyrics as “devolving into something more instinctive than language, as if it gushed forth from some underground spring instead of her throat” and misquoted a lyric (it was removed, according to a correction). Several publications, including both Rolling Stone and Spin, called it “tropical house,” which is not only a fake genre but is also a shitty, nonspecific term that both otherizes and erases the actual genres, invented by people of color!!!, that it’s referring to. (Usually reggaetón or dancehall or even moombahton.)
Do I sound still annoyed at this? I am! Particularly because a good number of the people on Twitter and in publications making these statements/jokes live in New York City, and if you can somehow live in New York City and not learn to recognize patois or dancehall or reggaetón—even just by osmosis—shit, my most basic advice is to go outside, for the love of god.
“Work” is, as you hopefully know by now, a song sung by Rihanna in Jamaican patois—a purposeful move, as her natural manner of speaking is Bajan patois, because she is from Barbados, which is different. She did this because “Work” is a dancehall song. I am no expert on patois, but these are things we can all agree on. When she sings, “He seh me haffi work, work, work, work, work,” those are actual words—patois!
They are not, as writer Brian Moylan puts in a Rihanna roundtable published today, “post-verbal,” or any of these things:
“Phonetic shapings” is a fascinating way to describe the language and accent of an entire nation! So is “guttural,” particularly when discussing a black, West Indian, woman artist who is actually singing like a lot of people do on dancehall music. Sounds pretty exoticizing, at best! Also, the phrase “pulsating beat” is just bad writing.
Look, I’m no expert, but I grew up in Wyoming and yet somehow I managed to figure it out. Can we all agree to quit this shit already? Also, everyone should listen to more dancehall.