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Rihanna’s Insane NSFW ‘Needed Me’ Video: Is This Great Or Just Gratuitous?

Should we be surprised by another video in which she glamorizes sex, drugs, and violence? Maybe not. But the graphic ‘Needed Me’ clip begs the question of whether there’s a limit.

04.20.16 5:47 PM ET

Rihanna just made what might be the most explicit music video in history.

The pop-star provocateur teases the music video release of “Needed Me,” a song off her new album ANTI, as a gift to her fans on 4/20, a more appropriate tie-in to the annual ganja celebration than Snapchat’s tone-deaf Bob Marley blackface disaster.

It’s appropriate timing too, as pop culture’s pearl-clutching censors, morality police, thinkpiece mavens, and “role model” monitors are going to need to take a strong hit or two to keep their conniption fits in order after viewing the three minute and 15 second visual orgy of nudity, drugs, violence, and blood.

There’s fetishizing gun and drug culture and exploiting female sexuality, and there’s unapologetically owning one’s middle-finger branding and artfully portraying a way of life that is often judged. Rihanna hasn’t as much toed the line between those extremes as she has strutted it in fierce stilettos, lately rocking sheer garments as a sort of screw-you armor against those who would criticize her for doing so.

After the headline-making revenge fantasy of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” video, an assault of the same graphic imagery so prevalent in “Needed Me,” and the ensuing body-baring sensuality of the videos for “Work” and “Kiss It Better,” you’d think we’d be a bit desensitized to such R-rated material from Rihanna.

At the very least, we would be conditioned to the message of empowerment that underwrites it all.

So it’s both admirable and surprising that Rihanna still manages to cause a stir the way she does when she releases something like “Needed Me,” at once an elegant and almost romantic portrayal of gun-wielding vengeance and a shockingly blunt depiction of criminal life.

It’s shrewd of Rihanna to partner with Harmony Korine, who directed the clip.

Korine is a bit of a professional rabble rouser himself, his work such reliable kindling for a fire of outrage that he’s often accused of baiting controversy with his content. At the same time, he’s a director hailed for the specificity and the beauty with which he depicts things that others might rule seedy—arguably an elegance and definitely an unusualness in chronicling themes that are otherwise grossly exploited.

Headlines teasing “Needed Me” will sell it as “NSFW.” There has never been a greater understatement.

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In the hypnotizing opening shot, there’s Rihanna in a sheer nightgown—such a vision that you almost don’t register the matter-of-fact nudity.

Everything that follows is staged with such uncharacteristic beauty and shot with such a sensual gaze that all the ensuing imagery—shock value in less careful hands—similarly escape feeling gratuitous. They’re so beautiful they almost seem normal.

There is Rihanna puffing out weed smoke. And again. Yep, and again—transfixing each time.

There’s a stripper’s ass twerking into the camera. There are some low-budget marauders wearing masks and assembling their assault weapons. There is Rihanna strutting.

There she is strutting across a hotel room, floor-to-ceiling windows behind her with gorgeous water views, a gun equipped with a silencer in hand. There she is strutting across the strip club, asses clapping in the background, dollar bills falling around her head in slow motion, gun to her side.

She stares into the eyes of her target, points her weapon at him, and point-blank shoots him. Blood pools on the ground as we cut to the next shot of Rihanna, this time gazing into the distance, taking a toke and maybe even contemplating what she’s just done.

No one has ever looked more beautiful. No one has ever been such a badass. And perhaps therein lies the problem.

A chorus of people will collectively orgasm over this sexy-as-hell, yaaas kween revenge clip—the epitome of empowerment, fabulousness, and artistic integrity. And they will battle in cacophony with the chorus of people who will watch the video and rule, and with arguable merit: Too. Damn. Far.

The question of whether Rihanna is a role model is a tired one. She’s over it. We’re over it.

Too violent, too misogynistic, too controversial: “Bitch Better Have My Money” already fielded every salvo in that exhausting conversation.

Do you see Rihanna as a powerful woman in charge of her destiny when you watch her lounge topless in her beachfront condo or take down a man that has wronged her with a pistol? Or do you see her as the latest example of a pop star baiting controversy by exploiting and eroticizing egregious behaviors?

Is Rihanna great, or is she gratuitous?

It’s a debate that this video, which you could also essentially read as some sort of sequel to Korine’s recent film Spring Breakers, might not solve. In fact, the video only complicates the conversation.

Can we shield our eyes simply because Rihanna is more explicit than her contemporaries, when in fact her contemporaries have staged incredibly similar clips?

Madonna, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Britney Spears have all done the revenge fantasy, the Bonnie and Clyde crime spree, and certainly the celebration of violence and sexuality in the name of a provocation. They’ve all weathered different volumes of controversy for it. “Needed Me” is simply more graphic, more explicit, and, in a way, more confident in what it’s portraying.

We love ourselves a femme fatale. And we love ourselves a scandalous pop culture moment to work (work work work) ourselves into a tizzy over.

To that end, I suppose, “Needed Me” is the prime example of why, even if you hate her and even if you condemn the content of this video, we love Rihanna.