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  • Writer's pictureAlex Pear

Rihanna’s Higher: A Song For Everyone Guilty of Compulsively Pouring Their Heart Out

At exactly two minutes, “Higher” feels like a drunk 2 a.m. call that you’ll inevitably regret the next morning despite the fact that you mean it so fervently. Rihanna, just self-aware enough to cut herself off after 120 seconds, admits she has “a little bit too much to say” as the outro begins. The deeply relatable song ignites imagery about the quiet stillness after a long night of debauchery when the loneliness creeps in and the willpower to exercise self restraint is utterly discarded. From a solely lyrical perspective, it’s desperate, it’s urgent, it’s not pretty.

It’s a song about hope with a strong shadow presence of that hope extinguishing as morning sets in. Rihanna’s voice cracks and we hear her yearning, her hunger: the way we all feel when we want someone so badly that we don’t know what to do. There’s also a nostalgic element of the song when Rihanna confides, “I wanna go back to the old way.” A longing for a past shrouded with rose-tinted glasses; before it got hard, before she’s begging her lover to respond and choose to spend the night with her.

My favorite moment of the song is when Rihanna, an artist renowned for her creative and poetic talents, brazenly professes, “I know I could be more creative and come up with poetic lines.” “Higher,” one of Rihanna’s most popular songs, isn’t pretending to be eloquent or even original. Like a booty call, it’s rash, a little embarrassing, rushed, and (most magically) raw and self-aware. It beautifully encapsulates the fine lines we walk between fear and openness, between love and pain, and between suffering and hedonism; often blindly trusting ourselves and others to stay balanced on an impossibly fine-lined tightrope. 

I think we can all agree we could do (and have done) worse than sending this at 2 a.m…

In “Higher,” we see the faultlines of this balancing act. We bear witness to Rihanna declaring her love for another without the guarantee of reciprocity. Her suffering is brought to the fore as she indulges herself in libations and libido. Soulful strings dramatically introduce the song, inviting us into the room with a lonely Rihanna, left to pine on her own and sobered by the reality that the one thing she wants is currently out of reach. Yet, despite her hesitations and fears, she still manages to say something brave and beautiful, evoking a feeling of longing continually salient upon every renewed listen. Listening to “Higher” feels like a shoulder to lean on, a beautiful antidote to the loneliness that’s all too relatable as dawn settles in and the solitude of an empty apartment is nothing short of devastating.

I first heard “Higher” when I was sitting in traffic with my friend, Corin, and we were on a seemingly never ending car ride on I-95, Philadelphia bound. As we watched our speedometer slowly tick from five mph to seven mph, and furiously watched the car in front of us attempt to swerve into the next lane over, Corin queued “Higher.” Humming along, her cheeks stretched into a smile and she informed me this was one of her favorite songs. Surprised the song she chose was one so vulnerable, so finite, I felt like I was being ushered into a new room in her mind where sensuality and desire live, where mess and chaos are embraced, and where she can relate to Rihanna’s desperation, or at least appreciate its beauty. She told me that she first heard the song at a Rihanna concert we both attended a few years earlier. I was tired and left the show early, but Corin assured me that the performance was so moving she hasn’t been able to let it go several years later. 

I was also having an emotional reaction to hearing “Higher” for the first time. Admittedly disappointed that I didn’t stay with Corin to watch Rihanna perform, I still felt like I was being plunged away from the busy highway and into a window of Rihanna’s emotional despair and passionate lust. Having recently emerged from my own painful breakup stunned and heartbroken, I knew all too well what it felt like to be too much for someone, to want to show and tell them how much I loved them, and to tragically understand that my intensity would be off-putting, unrequited. Yet, despite this knowledge, I continued to reach out and confess to them how badly I wanted them with me, how sorry I was for my role in the relationship breakdown.

Listening to “Higher” continues to transport me into that car with Corin, into Corin’s skin when she watched Rihanna perform in 2017, and into my former self when I was mending my first significant broken heart. It’s also taken on new meanings for me in the three years since Corin and my Northeast road trip. In those three years, my life has changed drastically: I graduated college, took a corporate job in Boston, and then uprooted my life to start over again in Alaska. Just as I've taken more risks, I’ve added more antics to my arsenal. Once too scared to confess my feelings for someone, “Higher” now reminds me of every drunken night out where I (perhaps foolishly) feel hopeful and filled with love, with an unabashed urge to express it. It also awakens an insatiable hunger I possess but often bury for the ease of getting through my day, the burning desire knowing exactly who and what I think I need. 

In “Higher,” I admire Rihanna for wearing her heart on her sleeve and openly acknowledging that no one can take her higher than whoever is lucky enough to be on the receiving end of the song. There’s power in the act of surrendering, in having enough self-trust to extend trust to someone else and, in Rihanna’s case, unapologetically telling the person she's on shaky ground with that she loves and needs them. “Higher” is a love song that captures the mess and fear inherent with opening ourselves up to another, and the ways it can feel crazy and destabilizing to confess longing for passionate companionship with someone else.

For me, it’s a song that pierces the often hidden places of my psyche where shame meets reality and I’m forced to reckon with the discomfort of my shadow-self stepping into the sunlight and begging to be loved, both by someone else and by me. In some ways, the song is also a desperate plea from Rihanna to herself as she acknowledges her own limitations; she feels lonely, guilty, sexually frustrated, and desperate for someone else to satiate her desires. In “Higher,” and in life more broadly, that’s okay, and we as listeners can relate to Rihanna’s urgency and longing. When I listen to “Higher,” I feel more compassion for my sometimes reckless 2 a.m. self, my passionate and lonely heartbroken self, and my future self who will continue to go through trials with love, fear, and the act of surrendering to someone else.

For the brief duration of the song, we’re able to enter a realm where we can pretend to be the “you” that Rihanna is singing to. That’s part of the poignancy of “Higher,” we’re participants in Rihanna’s drunken monologue instead of the audience, and for a fleeting moment, we can understand her fear and instability, as well as see it mirrored in ourselves. “Higher,” like a drunken late-night call, refuses to be received passively. Rather, it’s passionate, forceful, vulnerable, and personal. 

“Higher” is 120 evocative and pleasurable seconds showcasing the courage and pain inherent in apologizing and telling someone that we need them.


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