I'm not going to pretend I had some huge, life-changing revelation the first time I heard "Work" by Rihanna, because I didn't: I was just really sad. I was in the early throes of the worst breakup I'd ever experienced, laid on the hard sofa in the living room of the damp basement flat where I had recently become the sole tenant. I felt exhausted and numb in that way you only learn about the first time you realise someone you love doesn't love you back – hasn't loved you back for a long time; has been loving someone else instead, actually – and the emptiness of the place pinched at me, threatening to swallow me whole.
With my laptop balanced on my stomach, I checked my Twitter timeline for what felt like the billionth time that night. People had started posting about a new Rihanna song featuring Drake, and while most things I thought I knew about myself had recently been thrown into disarray, I was pretty sure that historically, I had been a fan of Rihanna songs which featured Drake. I absent-mindedly opened a link and pressed play.
Something about "Work" piqued my interest that first listen – something superficial; maybe the dancehall beat, or the loose, sexy sound of Rihanna's vocal – and I played it on repeat about ten times, letting it temporarily suck away the chill of the cold room with its single-glazed windows, the bouncy noise a vague reminder that somewhere else, people were dancing. I didn't listen too hard to the lyrics – I was just pleased to be forming thoughts, even if only partially, about something that wasn't the disaster I felt my life had suddenly become.
It wasn't until much later on, when I was able to actually tune into the words that Rihanna was singing, that I realised how much I related to "Work". In fact, it communicates complex emotions with such accuracy that it should be prescribed listening for anyone dealing with a breakup. It's a song about a relationship that's beyond help, and it especially conveys all the tugging doubts and second guessing that ending something major entails. Rihanna, who co-wrote the track, swings between acceptance and longing, admitting one minute "all that I wanted from you was to give me something that I never had", and the next begging her lover "baby, don't you leave, don't leave me stuck here in the streets". It encapsulates all the disorientation of having a part of your life ripped off like a limb.
As the first single from Rihanna's much-anticipated eighth studio album ANTI, "Work" felt like an introduction to a newly energised and fiercely true-to-herself artist. When the album finally arrived after a four year wait, it felt like a mission statement, whereby Rihanna became the kind of deeply versatile popstar who can make an amazing, cohesive record just as well as she racks up chart hits. There's a multi-faceted realness that clings to ANTI in ways that are absent from her other albums – think of the earnest crack in her voice on "Higher", the self-confidence that has made her a modern style icon in aural form on "Sex With Me", or the audacious choice to record a straight cover of Tame Impala's "Same Old Mistakes" just because she liked the song. The fact that she's a songwriter on most of the record's tracks suggests ANTI is her most personal album, at least so far.
And though I can never resist "Needed Me" and its infectious chorus, or the raw-edged prettiness of "Kiss It Better", it's always been "Work" that stood out the most to me. Because while its lyrics tell a story of confusion and helplessness, it's also a full on slutdropping, drink-spilling banger of the sort we've come to know and love from Rihanna. If the first time I heard "Work" stands out because it finally gave me something to focus on as I did nothing but lie absolutely still, my second experience with it sticks in my memory for the exact opposite reason.
It was a couple of months later, and I was grinding to it, disgracefully (to the extent where people stood around and watched, RIP my dignity), against the crotch of my friend Marco in a pub in North London. Later that night I would, of course, be crying on the bus and self-destructively punching Facebook messages to my ex, but for those few cherished moments I existed only in the world of "Work". It's a song that understands heartbreak profoundly, but also acknowledges that life has to carry on – often, no matter how awful you feel, you have to let go, even if that's only in the form of dancing until your thighs hurt to briefly push your problems to the periphery. Like Rihanna says: "Wake up and act like nothing's wrong, and just get ready for work, work, work, work, work".
So, that's what I did, because Rihanna's right – it's the only way to get through. With its many conflicting sentiments, "Work" shows that carrying on isn't necessarily a sign you've over the hurt, but you have to at least try. So I moved house. I took comfort in my friends. I bought a shitload of expensive makeup. I spent less time sleeping and more time going out. I slowly started getting back some of the parts of myself that I thought were lost, and also remembered that I'm actually kind of fun.
That doesn't mean I didn't cringe endlessly when I used to pass my ex's house on the way to work, or that I don't sometimes feel a pang of loneliness on a prematurely dark night. But the pain those things would once have conjured is now more just a dull ache, a fact of my life, something I chalk up to experience having made the conscious choice to plough forward.
For that reason, "Work" was the love song I needed in 2016, both personally and on a broader scale. Though it would have been a number one single at practically any point on the space/time continuum because it objectively slaps, the fact that it offers both realism and escapism at once makes it especially pertinent to this hellmouth of a year. Young people in 2016 know that things in the world are bad, because we are confronted with that every day. But we also know that those bad things ultimately can't, and shouldn't, stop us from giddily flailing ourselves around a dancefloor until the sun comes up.
I think that most of all, "Work" is Rihanna telling us that sometimes it's okay to deal with things that are fucked up by getting fucked up; that life is difficult and multi-layered, and that you can be aware of this while also trying your best to survive through it. And as I danced to it again a few weeks ago in a sweaty room, a bottle of cherry Lambrini and several rum and Diet Cokes in, surrounded by so many of my friends doing exactly the same thing, I realised that it's probably the wisest, most nuanced thing I've heard all year.