Review: Rihanna's ANTI

Was the wait worth it? Well, it depends on what you were waiting for.
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Was the wait worth it? Well, it depends on what you were waiting for.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in her titanic pop career, Rihanna has made us wait for it. Take a moment to consider Rihanna’s past decade of dominance: she released seven—count em, seven—studio albums in eight years. Since we couldn’t go five minutes without hearing her swaggeringly guttural croon on the radio, we took her for granted. We didn’t know how good we had it.

All of the hype surrounding Rihanna’s long-awaited eighth record ANTI obscures the fact that Rihanna has never really been an album artist. But absence makes the heart grow fonder, and as her radio limelight has receded in recent years, ANTI has become the first Rihanna record to be anticipated as a unified whole, rather than just the next collection of future chart-toppers. The fraught production process certainly helped to build the mystique—endless delays, abandoned collaborations, and then, the final stumble into the endzone—TIDAL’s botched accidental Thursday night release. So, now that ANTI finally sits comfortably on our hard drives—was the wait worth it? Well, it depends on what you were waiting for.

If you expected a collection of shiny pop baubles from our generation’s hook-slinger supreme, turn back now. ANTI’s not about all that. In fact, one of the most immediately noticeable elements of the album is its distinct lack of that hit, that undeniable smash single that will dominate every radio station for the next six months, the kind of hit that Rihanna built her career upon. Even Rated R, Rihanna’s gothic reinvention and ANTI’s closest analogue, yielded the summery “Rude Boy”. On paper, ANTI’s first single, “Work,” seems to hit all the right notes—Drake collaboration, Rihanna’s trademark vocal idiosyncrasies, a club-ready vibe—but in reality, it’s a strangely low-key affair. But when you consider that all three of Rihanna’s pre-release singles from 2015—including her collaboration with a damn Beatle—were left off the final tracklist, this absence of radio-friendliness seems like a calculated choice.

So what we have instead is a brooding, oddly sequenced, and scattered collection that defies easy categorization. Taking a cue from her commonly compared successor, if Rihanna’s 2010-2012 output was her Erotica phase, ANTI witnesses her entering the Bedtime Stories moment of her career—a little older, a little wiser, but more willing than ever to make us scratch our heads in confusion. ANTI is a perfect title—the record is anti-top 40, antithetical to many of Rihanna’s prior strengths, and honestly, a little anticlimactic. And yet, like anything else Rihanna has ever done, it is a strangely compelling musical artifact in its own right. The finished product is just as bizarre as the journey to its release.

The album opens with the forebodingly spare, Barbadian-flavored “Consideration”, more of a teaser trailer than anything else, before taking a hard left-turn into the Stevie Wonder-pastiche “James Joint”. It isn’t until track three that we actually get a full-length song, the Bhasker-produced “Kiss It Better”. It’s one of ANTI’s best offerings and a pure shot of old-school Rihanna—a stuttering, hypnotic beat, complimented by a hard-rock guitar riff and an innuendo about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

The middle third of the record goes to some weird places, even for Rihanna standards. Urban pop has grown increasingly dark in the interim years of Rihanna’s seclusion—Yeezus, Beyoncé, and most recently, the thunderous mainstream arrival of The Weeknd. ANTI adopts the aesthetic of trap beats, subwoofer-shattering reverb, and disembodied, mutilated vocal samples that currently dominate the pop universe (“You Needed Me”). “Desperado” bounces along on a vibrating bed of synths as Rihanna sings “there ain’t nothing here for me anymore” with trademark attitude. Sadly, it’s not an Eagles tribute, but don’t worry, I’ll get to the record’s bizarre cover choices later. Even more threatening is the lumbering “Woo”, exactly the kind of stomping Franken-song that The Weeknd has brought to the charts (so it’s probably not too surprising to see his name in the credits). Rihanna has always possessed a unique ability to wrap her tongue around the stranger parts of words (“-ella, -ella, -ella”), but on much of ANTI, she slurs her words to the point of sounding drunk. It’s just further evidence of the abandon that characterizes much of the project.

Just when you think you have ANTI figured out, the album’s home stretch comes along with a strange assortment of acoustic ballads, doo-wop soul, and torch-burning declarations of undying love. The malt-shop-flavored “Love on the Brain”, in which Rihanna sweetens up her delivery and sounds like a completely different vocalist, seems to be from an entirely different studio session (for all we know, it probably was). Even better is “Higher”, a midnight, Motown-channeling barnburner that at just over two minutes, ends far too soon.

As the first high-profile pop release of the year, ANTI is a bizarre way to begin 2016. If you want to experience just how befuddling this record can be, just check out its note-for-note cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”, stylized here as “Same Ol’ Mistakes”. There’s essentially no difference between Rihanna’s version and the track that appeared on last year’s Currents because it sounds as if Rihanna simply sang over the recording. In fact, there are places where her voice blends perfectly with the specter of Kevin Parker’s vocals. So why is this on ANTI? Well, it’s emblematic of the album’s attitude—Rihanna’s going to do what ever she damn well pleases. Plus, even if some of her choices may strain the ears or puzzle the mind, there’s still plenty of that classic Rihanna magic beneath the record’s funhouse aesthetic. “Do things my own way, dahling, you should just let me”, she sings on “Consideration”. One full listen to ANTI and you’ll realize—we should probably just let her. B

Listen to ANTI on Apple Music