On a random cold Wednesday in January, I came home from a long day, dirty snow still clinging to the sidewalks (and to my mood) — but I opened my Twitter feed to see that Rihanna’s new album was, unexpectedly, available online. I clicked a link, gave an email address, and in under a minute, the entire album was there, for free, in my music library. I haven’t stopped smiling since.
In the contemporary, I wake up many mornings feeling that my limbs feel a little heavier than they used to. It’s the reality of being black in America today. We wake up, remember what we saw on the news, read online the night before, or heard in the voice of our friends and family and the weight of it all remains. It’s not easy. It’s not easy being a lot of things in America today. But this past week I felt a little lighter. Unforeseeable to me, Rihanna’s ANTI has given me joy. And, oh, how good it feels to be joyous.
After the album was released, I read an article on The Atlantic about why Rihanna’s lead single “Work” works. Unlike many of those that have commented on the article, if you actually read the piece, you can see the (not so subtle, and thus not really) shade the writer sends the way of Rihanna, the workings of the song, and of the pop music, money-making formula in general. And I won’t say the author is wrong. The music industry and its ties to money, capitalism and exploitation should not be ignored. However, regardless of what you believe about Rihanna’s artistic merit, I care more about something else: What does Rihanna’s new single, new album, new surprise out of thin-air, (temporarily) free release do in terms of community?
All I have to do is open up Twitter and see my friends across the country talking about the album. Whether it be discussions about if the album is Rihanna’s “greatest of all time” or if that bar wasn’t so high to begin with. Whether it be in support of or aversion to the fact that Rihanna has writing credits on all of her eighth album’s songs, as compared to some of her previous on which she has none. Was this album worth the hype? Is Rihanna a true artist? Which track is your fave? I have my own opinions, but I also don’t care that we agree. People are talking. People are joking. People are laughing. People are smiling. That’s what seems important.
My joy is about the little things that add up to something much bigger.
It’s about Rihanna speaking Patois on her lead single, “Work”: “When you ah guh learn, learn, learn, learn learn?”
It’s about Rihanna giving us Tweets and Instagram captions for days: “Don’t say that you miss me/Just come and get me,” and “If you want, we could be runaways.”
It’s about the female empowerment, the gender-norm subversion lyrics given to us in “Needed Me”: “Know you hate to confess/but baby ooo, you needed me.”
It’s about: “Didn’t they tell you I was a savage/ F*** your white horse and your carriage,” speaking aloud the minds of 2016, in-charge, powerful black folk having the upper-hand.
Yet amidst every few Rihanna one-liners on my social media feeds, I also see a post about Flint, Michigan or Quintonio Legrier or anniversaries and new progressions in the headlines that have been haunting us for years. This is good, of course. We have the capacity to hold dear many things, several causes at once. This ANTI zeitgeist, whether you’re here for it or not, is not a complete distraction. No one is forgetting the bigger issues — I don’t know that we could if we wanted to — but communion through pop-culture can be a break or a pause. It can be self-care. It can be healing.
So my joy is not really about the album on its own. It’s not about what makes Rihanna’s songs “work” for radio or the industry. It’s not about if today I agree or disagree that popular music is conforming or powerless or not relevant. It’s about moments where I catch myself smiling, moments of surprise and moments of change amidst all the bad.
“Let me cover your s**t in glitter/I can make it gold, gold.”
I won’t say that Rihanna as an artist or her lyrics are without criticism or fault. In a few weeks I might not care about her album, my smile might leave and I might want to forget I ever felt joy from a source like a pop album I wasn’t anticipating. But while we still need that joy, I’ll let artists continue to try to spin us some gold.