No, Rihanna Isn't A "Post-Verbal Pop Star" & That's A Garbage Thing To Say

Photo: MediaPunch/REX.
On the cover of September's W Magazine, Rihanna rightfully flaunts her crown. She stomped into 2016, releasing one of the year's strongest records. Anti was a marvel, a boozy origin story, an exhale. After her eighth album and seventh world tour, she deserves to open a bottle of Hennessy and twerk on her piles of cash. She's earned it.

W's feature acknowledges her successes, calling her "pop's many-faced goddess." She encrusted her own throne and will sit (or slouch) on it however she pleases. She's spoiled, she's generous, she's caustic, she's fun: Rihanna is exactly who she wants to be and — refreshingly — she's never cared if that ends up being on- or off-brand.

None of this is new, but W had 17 writers try to use their words to describe her myth. It's interesting enough, until the magazine's crowning turns into name-calling with racist implications. Rihanna, according to one of W's writers, is the "post-verbal popstar."

"On her single 'Work,' Rihanna sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher or a duck trapped in your neighbor’s apartment," writes Brian Moylan. "She doesn’t make sense as much as she makes noise, commuting a story not through words, but phonetic shapings that sound something like words left out in the rain, their definition bleeding out into each other until there is nothing but a string of guttural utterances set to a pulsating beat."

Pause.

A lot of Anti's appeal is that it allows Rihanna to whine, howl, bellow, and whisper. She's giving us the mythos to understand her reality — really feel it — and understand that it's a lot like our own. She, too, drinks too much and gets lost in memories about an ex. She's playful in the bedroom, but also distant in it. (Are you having sex this good? Am I? Is anyone?)

But what shouldn't have to be explained is that, no, Rihanna doesn't just "make noise." She doesn't sound like a duck or a cartoon. Those "phonetic shapings" you hear? Those "guttural utterances"? That's called language. Just because Rihanna isn't meeting Moylan's mighty standard of pronunciation doesn't mean she's not saying anything at all.

There are a lot of other offensive characterizations of her words: "Is she too lazy to enunciate? Too emotionally bereft to elucidate? Or too far out that she’s speaking some sort of alien tongue that she’s making up as she goes along, like Björk or Khaleesi?" Moylan outs the racial underpinnings of his own argument: That standard of pronunciation? It's pretty white. Beyoncé expertly weaves song lyrics with spoken word, Moylan says, but more importantly, "Taylor Swift sings with crisp pronunciation, just so you know which of her exes she’s dissing at any given time. And Katy Perry’s words provide more inspiration than all of the Minion macros that your aunt posts on Facebook."

W's cutting characterization of Rihanna's sound is another entry into a longstanding dismissal of non-white music. Rihanna is from the islands; her musical heritage isn't the white pop princesses America praises, but ska, dancehall, and Caribbean pop. Maybe she is speaking in a tongue unfamiliar to Moylan, but it's not alien. It's island, it's Black, it's a part of cultures that exist in this world.
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Birdman made the internet cackle when he told the hosts of Hot 97's The Breakfast Club to "put some respek on his name." It was funny when he sat in a chair, arms crossed, scolding his colleagues for making a joke of his reputation. "Put some respek on my name," he said. "When y'all say my name, put some respek on it." It was a funny moment, but one that's a reality: Non-white artists don't just sell singles and albums. They push for equitable representation of their culture and of themselves, too.

Here's the truth: I don't know a lot about Caribbean pop and I didn't grow up listening to reggae at home with my parents. But I do know that something doesn't have to belong to me or fit neatly into my life to be important. Rihanna isn't some exotic animal that needs to be colonized or caged. This isn't My Fair Lady — her sound doesn't need to be toned or refined. Just because something didn't come out of suburban America doesn't mean it's otherworldly. Put some respek on the way Rihanna's voice repeats the word "work" and put some respek on her identity as an artist.
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