Rihanna looks at the rule book for how to be a pop star, douses it in gasoline, and sets it on fire. She's a rebel. And nowhere is that more evident than in her new single, "Work," featuring Drake.
On Wednesday morning, Rihanna premiered "Work" on BBC Radio 1. Then the song was immediately uploaded for public consumption on TIDAL and Apple Music. It's an upbeat, glossy track that blends dub with dancehall and showcases just how much Rihanna has grown in the almost 4 years since her seventh studio album, Unapologetic. Her voice sounds richer, her sounds are more nuanced.
In a tweet promoting this song, Rihanna calls "Work" the "first single" from her forthcoming studio album Anti. The. First. Single?
Rihanna has, theoretically, already released three singles that could potentially go on Anti: "FourFive Seconds," "American Oxygen," and "Bitch Better Have My Money." By saying that "Work" is Anti's first single, is she telling us that none of those other singles will make the cut? That would be strange. Plus, she's already called "American Oxygen" the first single and said "BBHMM" will be on the album.
But then again, Rihanna does whatever she wants.
"Rihanna is who I always use in my examples to young bands, because she is the only one who can get away with anything," Amanda Charney of Black Panda PR told me on the phone earlier this week. "They want to drop an album over Christmas and I tell them no. Every time they ask me why they can't do something, I say, 'Because you're not Rihanna.'"
What Charney's getting at is that if you are not Rihanna, there are rules that most artists have to play by if they want to be successful. Those rules have something to do with how a record is produced, but more closely work with how an album is promoted to the general population.
Every album has a life cycle. It's born after it's been recorded and mixed; then a few singles are released individually—along with music videos—over a span of time leading up to the official album release. When the album finally arrives, there's a flurry of press activity, ideally leading to album sales. Goddess willing, successful sales turn into a world tour… until the artist returns to a studio to start the whole process over again.
When I spoke on the phone to several publicists earlier this week, every single one of them said that right now, the industry standard for promoting an album is around six months.
"Publicity cycles vary from project to project; some are short campaigns and some albums stretch on due to variables, such as touring, continued fan activity, radio play and other factors," Sarah Mary Cunningham, a publicist at Columbia Records, told me on the phone. "Some projects start sort of slowly, then build momentum and end up stretching out—while others may take off like wildfire."
Most superstars don't have to worry about getting people to pay attention to them. That's why you see them compress the time needed to build hype. Taylor Swift promoted 1989 in just three months. Adele promoted 25 in six weeks. Beyoncé didn't promote Beyoncé at all. So why is Rihanna taking so long to promote Anti?
Rihanna's fans have been convinced that Anti (or R8, as they called it before it had a title) was coming as far back as fall 2014. Up until that point, Rihanna had pretty consistently released something every year. In 2005, she released her debut Music Of the Sun. 2006 was A Girl Like Me. 2008 gave us Good Girl Gone Bad. 2009 was Rated R. Then 2010's Loud, 2011's Talk That Talk and 2012's Unapologetic.
Theoretically, Rihanna was going to release an album in 2014. It never arrived. She switched labels, and though the hype around her album remained, no album materialized. In October 2014, Rihanna posted a picture of herself in the studio and the buzz began. And all that fall, there was excitement. Rumor had it the album was "coming soon." Rihanna shot a promotional video in Paris. In January 2015, she released "FourFive Seconds." But no album. In March 2015: "Bitch Better Have My Money." In April 2015, she dropped "American Oxygen." She set everything up for a May or June album release. Summer came and went. And so did six more months.
"Before iTunes, I used to buy an album based on one song. These days, if you don’t like three of the singles, you don't buy the album," Charney told me.
But Rihanna's different. She keeps releasing "singles." Instead of dropping an album in August, she launched a weird advertising campaign with Samsung where users travel through "rooms" to find something? It's a strange little game that seems to be tied to an album that feels like it's never coming.
"I think the smaller the artist, the less elaborate you can be… You can fatigue the media trying to get them to entertain something new… Suffering through news on every machination and minute detail. We have to be cautious not to turn people off,” Judy Miller Silverman, who runs Motormouth Media, told Consequence of Sound in 2014.
But Rihanna doesn't have to worry about fatigue.
"Rihanna is doing it how every other act is doing it. Her camp is pushing out singles. They're building up hype. They’re getting more and more interest," Charney says. "Timing really matters. She's running a great campaign, so why wouldn't she make fans wait for it?"
Of all the songs Rihanna has released in the last year, "Work" is probably the least radio-friendly. Its hook is simply the repetition of the word "Work." Her vibe is more Caribbean than it has been since her debut album. The lyrics are difficult to understand on first listen.
None of these things make "Work" a bad song. But it could be difficult to market to the masses. And right now, it's only available for subscribers of Tidal and Apple Music, which means it probably won’t chart as highly as it could, because 1) people have to pay to listen to it and 2) those services do not report their streams to the Billboard charts. (A similar thing happened with Drake's "Hotline Bling.")
For almost any other artist, this 15-month (and counting!) album promotion would be a career suicide mission. But for Rihanna, it's just work.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.