Drake and Rihanna present one of contemporary pop culture’s sweetest love stories. Drake the awkward Canadian, conventionally Western but outside the extroverted hip hop mainstream. Rihanna the proud Barbadian, an outsider by birth but well in line with the American narrative of self-empowerment. Rihanna pulls Drake out of his isolated self-pity. Drake gives Rihanna a space to rest from her antagonistic No Chill. Together they create something that looks like real love, an us-against-them defiant Otherness. Rihanna makes Drake fight. Drake makes Rihanna smile. Together they open one another up and expose us to the much-lauded virtues of vulnerability. It’s probably all bullshit, but what isn’t?
Real life be damned, their relationship began with Rihanna’s 2010 What’s My Name? and entered more emotionally complicated territory with Drake’s 2011 Take Care. Work is the latest entry in this great 21st-century love story. Drake’s verse is the only major feature on ANTI, which is already significant given the overwhelming Rihanna-ness of the album as a whole. His presence is important enough to earn Work two music videos; one by Director X that’s decidedly Rihanna’s video, one by Tim Erem that’s decidedly Drake’s. The first plays on the tension of Drake’s presence in Rihanna’s world, the second plays on the tension of Rihanna’s presence in Drake’s.
Drake in Rihanna’s dancehall club is prototypical Drake. He spends most of the video standing in the corner, slack-jawed, while beautiful people twerk. Drake always looks out of place, but I don’t think he’s ever looked so adorably uncomfortable. Rihanna, for her part, is in her element, but instead of shunning Drake she comes to his salvation. She doesn’t pull him into the crowd, but she dances with him against the wall while he performs his signature chin rub. It’s a nice gesture, and Rihanna makes herself more human because of it. She’s not an Other like everyone else in the room. She cares about the Westerner, and she saves him from alienation.
There’s none of that alienation in the second version, set in Drake’s natural habitat, a relatively tacky apartment. Rihanna looks every bit as out of place as Drake did in the dance club, but she’s comfortable here: instead of owning the scene she sinks into its dorkyness. She dresses like Drake dresses; that is, like a middle-schooler circa 2003. She dances like Drake dances; this, awkwardly in a colorfully lit empty room. Drake outside his zone revels in his out-of-place Westernness. Rihanna treats her exile as a respite. She sinks into the comfort of Drake’s Western introversion, and together they defy alienation via one another’s company.
What do they each get of these two journeys? Drake gets a cultural experience where he escapes isolation by means of someone else’s comfortable extroversion. Rihanna gets the privacy of an American living room where she can sink into the comfort of someone else’s introversion. Rihanna introduces Drake to his real self via her inchoately Other dancing. Drake introduces Rihanna to her real self via the joys of home ownership. It’s worth noting that neither are forced to sacrifice their identities in their exchanges. Drake’s venture into Rihanna’s zone is an exposure that solidifies his Northernness. Rihanna’s venture into Drake’s zone is protection from the cultural forces that would strip her of her Southernness. He stays Drake because of his unassimilable presence. She stays Rihanna because of Drake’s isolationist protection.
There’s a chauvinistic and colonialist narrative there, buried underneath the egalitarianism. As much as we’d like to read Drake’s trip to the New Jerk as an exuberant encounter with the Other, it’s more a solidification of his already solid self. He doesn’t participate, he doesn’t assimilate, there’s no hint of cultural fusion. He just observes, and comes out looking more Drake than ever. The New Jerk serves mostly as a backdrop to his introspection, just another tool in the building of the same self-conscious Drake that he’s always built.
It’s the same Drake that he’s building in his living room. And in a lot of ways, the Rihanna in Drake’s living room is the same Rihanna as in the club. But where Drake maintains his Drake-ness against the Other, Rihanna can only maintain her Rihanna-ness under Drake’s protectorate. She doesn’t get to be herself in the mainstream American club. Her identity can only be maintained when she’s on her own turf or when she’s safe in the isolation of her lover’s apartment. Her only option in a world outside her own is assimilation.
The dream of the Drake-Rihanna relationship is to get Drake into the club and Rihanna into the condo. This is the axis of life according to music videos: a work-free world where life is one part Netflix-&-chill, one part revelry. Like so many 21st-century projects, I think it’s motivated by a compulsion to preserve identity. Drake’s interior is well-established, and he needs someone to pull him out to new zones to better define his exterior. Rihanna’s well-established exterior is in danger, and she needs someone to pull her inside so that she can better develop her interior. It’s hard to argue that the narrative presents an equal distribution of power here. Rihanna needs someone who can bring her to somewhere safe. Drake just needs someone to lead him somewhere where he can rub his chin.