Up until now Rihanna has successfully churned out a new album for every year of her career, notching up hit after hit. Anti, the Barbadian singer’s eighth studio offering, therefore set an unprecedented record with a three-and-a-bit year gap between it and its predecessor Unapologetic. With only three sporadic singles to fill the void (McCartney and Kanye collab FourFiveSeconds, hyper aggressive Bitch Better Have My Money, and a semi-political American Oxygen – yeah I don’t remember it either) we were left wondering where exactly had Rihanna gone? Constant rumours and multi-platform promotions only fuelled the anticipation. Then 2016 rolled around and amid botched leaks and Tidal exclusivity, Anti stumbled onto the scene with underwhelming first week sales. What the hell had happened to pop’s mega vixen?
Disorientating, fractious, and gritty, Anti is everything a Rihanna album is not. She’s swapped the dance-pop hits for rockier R&B sounds and low-key dancehall influences. On first listen, I asked myself was it worth the wait? Anti embodies a star rejecting her previously established artistry in favour of a more authentic sound: “I know I could be more creative / And come up with poetic lines” she pines on the soulful Higher. It’s a bold move, and one that I respect; Rihanna is now in full control of her creative destiny it seems. The lazy throb of Anti’s opener Consideration cries, “Will you ever let me? / Will you ever respect me? / No”. Resultantly, the record’s lyrics have a more raw and genuine touch, with Rihanna revealing her troubles in way far less glamourized than the likes of Rated R.
What’s more, her vocals are the most expressive they’ve ever been, to the point where parts of the record don’t sound like Rihanna at all. Lead single Work gorgeously blends soft electronica and dancehall backdrops with a hypnotic Caribbean babble that drifts into incoherence. Add to this Drake’s sturdy twang and the result is one of the album’s best songs. Whether the pair have recreated the same resonance as What’s My Name? or Take Care though is debateable. Work doesn’t necessarily have the same punch their previous collaborations do, but then nothing on Anti does. Indeed perhaps the most recognisably Rihanna song is, oddly enough, the beautifully silky, guitar ballad Never Ending. From these lower, dreamier tones, Rihanna then ramps it up to an impossibly high-pitched rasp on the nostalgic sound of Love On The Brain finishing the album with a soul-tinged style.
Yet for all the experimenting and style searching she’s done, there were bound to be rough patches. The discordant wrenching sound that drives Woo along is quite frankly awful. Why forsake melody and harmony in favour of trap crap? In addition, the rockier electric guitars add nothing to the otherwise R&B flavoured Kiss It Better, ultimately causing the whole song to drag. In an unusual choice, Riri’s Same Ol’ Mistakes is a solid enough cover of Tame Impala’s New Person, Same Old Mistakes. But her version is so freakishly similar I longed for some kind of twist or flair of individuality. Redefining yourself musically is all well and good, but doing so by mirroring something marketably quirkier than you’re old identity is not the way to go.
Anyone expecting Anti to pick up the pace a bit will, unfortunately be disappointed. From the weed smoking beginnings of James Joint, through the slow wobble of Needed Me, all the way to gentle piano of closing number Close To You, Anti explores a range of down-tempo songs all vying for independence. It’s a decidedly mature effort from a woman who usually bares all in a clubbier guise. There are moments where Anti demonstrates real potential, especially when Rihanna utilises her musical roots, proving that the singer has the capability to produce meaningful and artistically merited songs. Yet in making such a sudden departure from her repertoire, I feel the album misses the mark on more than a few occasions. I’m sure the point of Anti is held in its discordance, becoming a literal Anti-Rihanna, but honestly that’s not something I’d choose to listen to for entertainment.