“The world loves Rihanna, so why would we want an anti-Rihanna album?”
This kind of question has been tweeted, blogged and Wendy Williams-ed since the title of Rihanna’s long-awaited eighth album was announced last October, and well before then. From the day her Instagram account closed almost two years ago, pop music fans have played a guessing game as the ever-cool, ubiquitous pop star became a more elusive and untouchable figure. While she covered dozens of magazines, remained a paparazzi fixture and signed history-making deals with the likes of Dior, nobody really knew what Rihanna was doing or, more importantly, when the new album was coming.
Then came 2015, the year that brought along three singles, three videos, awards show performances, a Samsung campaign— everything but the album itself. Rumors of scrapped albums, producer fallouts and intervening boyfriends came thick and fast by the end of the year, and people began to worry that the singer’s three years of work were wasted. However, after one listen of “ANTI” it is clear that Rihanna never lost control of the project, she was simply making sure it was perfect.
The 13-track set opens with the SZA-assisted “Consideration,” a sonic declaration of independence and struggle for control. "I got to do things my own way darling / Will you ever let me? / You should just let me / Why you will never let me grow?" If any song addressed the mainstream's demand for more chart-topping hits it would be this, foretelling the listener that the album is not another collection of Top 40 songs thrown together.
Instead, it opens an introspective, wholesome body of work that primarily explores Rihanna’s complicated relationship with love, as she reminisces on the men that let her down and yearns for something greater than the temporary highs of sex, drugs and success.
Sometimes she’s yearning for an ex-lover’s touch, like on “Kiss It Better,” a definite album highlight and potential career highlight - if she lets it be. The previously-teased track sees Rihanna longing for the one who did it best, “Been waiting on that sunshine / Boy, I think I need that back,” daydreaming over romantic electric guitars.
Other times she’s being the cocky star we know and love, spilling the tea on an ex who didn’t deserve her: “You was just another n***a on the hit list / Tryna fix your inner issues with a bad bitch.” Besides these meme-worthy lyrics, her straightforward delivery and phuck-free attitude only help make “Needed Me” another highlight.
Rihanna’s willingness to experiment with genres is still very prominent on her eighth LP, adding flavours of industrial, dancehall and indie (on the surprising, and surprisingly brilliant, cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”) to the R&B set. The results vary - the industrial-leaning “Woo,” ghost-featuring Travi$ Scott on the chorus, is one the weakest songs - but Rihanna never sounds out of place. The most straightforward song is definitely the Drake duet “Work,” the sexy Caribbean-influenced lead single, though that’s not a negative because Boi-1da’s production hits even harder in its new surroundings.
When it comes to sex, no song comes close to the hypnotising “Yeah, I Said It,” produced by Timbaland. Undoubtedly one of the sexiest songs she’s ever recorded, sonically its similar to “Skin” but the lyrics are more of an intense “Birthday Cake,” with guns used for metaphors instead of celebratory baked goods. “Boy, get up inside it / I want you to homicide it / Going slow and I want you to pop it / Up against the wall, we don’t need a title.”
The subject of love is a little more complicated for Rihanna, as she's not as certain to what she wants as she is in the bedroom. On “Woo,” co-written by The Weeknd, she sings of not caring about an ex without any remorse, but then longs to feel love again on the guitar-led ballad “Never Ending.” The latter is definitely stronger here, but both could be in the ‘filler’ category when compared to the last three songs.
The album closes with a heartbreak trilogy - “Love On The Brain,” “Higher” and “Close To You” - that emphasises how strong, and versatile, the singer’s voice has grown since “Unapologetic,” and, really, they’re just three brilliant songs back-to-back. Her sweet falsetto takes centre stage on the soulful “Love On The Brain,” where she sings of a toxic love that pulls you back for more: “It beats me black and blue but it fucks me so good / And I can’t get enough, must be love on the brain.” Whew!
This transitions seamlessly into the truly great “Higher,” a 2-minute-long late-night drunk dial begging for her ex to come back. Her vocals reach shattering notes that nobody would expect on the totally heartbreaking and cinematic doo-wop track - it’s a real moment, not just for the album, but for Rihanna herself. “Close To You” is the prettiest, stripped-back song; a piano-led ballad that could certainly be the big ballad of the album - not only for its universalism, but its lyrics read like a sequel to “Stay."
Rihanna’s bold, risk-taking personality is what made her a pop superstar, making her music with unique honesty and strength, whether she was singing about domestic abuse or sex. Sure, getting an album of back-to-back bangers didn’t hurt when “LOUD” dropped but that wasn't the only reason we were listening.
On “ANTI,” she’s more honest than before, sexy with a new maturity, and as experimental as ever as she pushes herself lyrically, vocally and artistically. Eight albums deep is when artists usually start calling for help but, confident and unrestrained, she's doing things her way (she co-wrote all 12 original songs) because she really can.
“ANTI” is not the anti-Rihanna album, in fact, eight albums in, Rihanna has just arrived.
Listen to: "Kiss It Better," "Needed Me," "Love On The Brain," "Yeah, I Said It"
"ANTI" was released on iTunes on Jan. 29.