Rihanna’s ‘Work’ Lyrics Use Creole & Patois, Totally Confusing Music Critics

by Tiffany Thomas

Rihanna’s latest hit single, “Work,” has become one of the biggest singles of the year, and reviews have been pretty positive overall. Still, some of her listeners felt lost listening to the lyrics. So, what had American fans and music critics so confused? Rihanna’s “Work” lyrics use Jamaican patois and Creole — and rather than applauding the obvious nod to her Caribbean heritage, some unfairly blasted the Barbados-born singer for speaking what they called “gibberish” on her single.

The futuristic single, a mix of techno and dancehall, is one of the most popular singles on Rihanna’s new album, Anti, according to Billboard magazine. “Work” is Rihanna’s 14th song to take the number one spot on Billboard’s Top 100 list, breaking her tie with Michael Jackson for the third-most number one singles. Only The Beatles and Mariah Carey have more hit singles, Billboard reported.

Rihanna teamed up with Drake for the single and video, mixing an old-school Jamaican dancehall beat and hypnotic lyrics to create a smash hit that feels more reggae than crossover pop. It wasn’t a particularly surprising choice for Rihanna; the singer has leaned on her heritage before in some of her biggest fan favorites. Her 2005 hit “Pon the Replay” and her 2011 single “Man Down” were both hit songs inspired by Rihanna’s Caribbean roots.

And while bringing fans the sounds she grew up with has helped Rihanna deliver several of her most popular club anthems, the songs themselves aren’t perfect — and they aren’t meant to be. Rihanna explained her use of Jamaican dialect in her recent interview for Vogue magazine’s April 2016 cover story:

You get what I’m saying, but it’s not all the way perfect. Because that’s how we speak in the Caribbean.

Still, the connection was lost on several music critics, resulting in some pretty unfair negative reviews. Here’s an excerpt from a particularly scathing article on “Work” posted on TheGizzleReview.com:

Either way, her singing voice isn’t doing much work on this new single, the latest to be taken from her highly anticipated new album ‘Anti’. What begins as slurring soon just devolves into gibberish, “work work work work work” becoming “wor wer waa wahhhhh wa”. Repeated listening is genuinely hilarious.

Not surprisingly, Twitter users were even less forgiving in their responses:

But the lyrics really aren’t gibberish at all. According to Genius.com, Rihanna repeats phrases in “Work” like “me haffi” (which means “I have to”), “when you ah guh” (or “when are you going to”), and “me no cyar” (or “I don’t care). Those aren’t gibberish at all, but basic phrases in a West Indian dialect that mixes English and African influences. Here are all the “Work” lyrics with loose translations of Jamaican patois, as reported by Black Girl With Long Hair:

[Hook: Rihanna]
Work, work, work, work, work, work
He said me haffi (He said I have to)
Work, work, work, work, work, work!
He see me do mi (He saw me do my)
Dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt!
So me put in (So I put in)
Work, work, work, work, work, work
When you ah guh (When are you going to)
Learn, learn, learn, learn, learn
Meh nuh cyar if him (I don’t care if he’s)
Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurting
[Verse 1: Rihanna]
Dry! …Me a desert him (Dry, I’m going to desert him)
Nuh time to have you lurking (No time to have you lurking)
Him ah go act like he nuh like it (He will act like he doesn’t like it)
You know I dealt with you the nicest (I dealt with you nicely)
Nuh body touch me you nuh righteous (Don’t touch me, you’re not righteous)
Nuh badda, text me in a crisis (Don’t bother to text me in a crisis)
I believed all of your dreams, adoration
You took my heart and my keys and my patience
You took my heart on my sleeve for decoration
You mistaken my love I brought for you for foundation
All that I wanted from you was to give me
Something that I never had
Something that you’ve never seen
Something that you’ve never been!
But I wake up and act like nothing’s wrong
Just get ready fi…
[Hook: Rihanna]
Work, work, work, work, work, work
He said me haffi
Work, work, work, work, work, work!
He see me do mi
Dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt!
So me put in
Work, work, work, work, work, work
Ner ner ner ner ner ner!
When yuh ago learn learn learn learn learn learn! (When will you learn)
Before the tables turn turn turn turn turn turn!

Rihanna isn’t the first to bring a West Indian dialect to American listeners. Of course artists like Bob Marley and Sean Paul come to mind, but more recently Kanye West and even Kendrick Lamar have used Caribbean dialects in their music. Still, Rihanna might be the first singer in recent years to face such a backlash for doing so.

Whether the “gibberish” accusations are actually rooted in prejudice against cultures found outside the United States is open for debate. But it’s clear that Rihanna’s new single is a hit with fans — especially if they truly get where she’s coming from.