Rihanna returns with unstoppable “ANTI”
Jack Riedy | Thursday, February 4, 2016
Ah, the halcyon days of 2012. Frank Ocean was firmly in the public eye, Future was an aspiring crossover star and Rihanna released her seventh album, “Unapologetic.” Though it featured hits like “Pour It Up” and “Stay,” the album received mixed reviews and is best remembered today for the head-scratching duet with Chris Brown titled “Nobody’s Business.” Following a successful world tour, something unusual happened: Rihanna stopped releasing music. After putting out seven albums in eight years, she just disappeared from the pop landscape.
Of course, the Barbadian singer never really went away. She appeared on Shakira and Eminem songs, voiced the protagonist in a DreamWorks movie, signed deals with Balmain, Puma and Dior. Above all, she seemed to chill out. Her Instagram feed captured the international pop star swimming in the ocean, smoking blunts, dancing with friends, and generally enjoying being a pop star.
Throughout 2015, Rihanna released three singles, each radically different from the others. All along, she hinted at having an eighth album in the works, giving no clue as to when it would be released. She told MTV, “I wanted songs that I could perform in 15 years … I want to make songs that are timeless.” In November, she announced another massive world tour supported by Samsung, set to begin in late February. The year came and went, but “#R8” was nowhere in sight.
Until last week, when Roc Nation released lead single “Work” followed by the album, “ANTI,” the same day. Initially available exclusively on the much-maligned streaming service TIDAL, Rihanna ended up giving away a million free copies on Twitter. The single itself is fine. Like Adele’s “Hello,” it feels focus-grouped to death. Dancehall influence? Check. Drake is on it? Check. Rihanna slurs her lyrics? Check. It’s the Platonic ideal of What A Rihanna Song Sounds Like, and it’s boring. “Work” will hit the radio hard, and people will quote it in Instagram captions for a few weeks, but she won’t be performing it years from now.
The rest of “ANTI” is far better. The album is a subtly feminist statement, showing different sides of her persona that add up to a complete and complex individual. She’s always had her own musical style, but her personality has never been this fleshed out. Emphasis on flesh: nearly every song focuses on sex, love or some intersection of the two.
“Needed Me” is a prime example of this refreshing expression of attitude. Rihanna flips a common hip-hop trope, scolding a lover for getting too attached to her when all she wants is a physical relationship. A synth that sounds like quivering sheet metal vacillates between pitches in the high end while the bass locks in with a stuttering drum pattern. As the chorus hits, the bass expands, threatening to swallow the entire song. Rihanna is unfazed, belting the hook before dropping back down into a self-assured whisper. “Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?” she asks, half-rhetorically. It sounds more like the experimental FKA twigs than like anything on pop radio.
On “ANTI,” Rihanna seems to be consciously avoiding the kinds of danceable tracks that rocketed her to the top of the charts. Otherwise, she is willing to experiment with any genre. She tries each on like a designer gown, and they all fit fabulously, of course. “Never Ending” is an acoustic ballad, complete with foot stomping and a wordless refrain. SZA, the only other credited guest, appears on opening track “Consideration”, where heavily distorted drums build a thudding groove as the two singers trade verses. “Kiss It Better” is a Prince-style rock ballad retrofitted with a heavy trap beat. The longest song on “ANTI” is a completely unexpected, utterly funky Tame Impala cover. In terms of fame, it’s like 1998 Mariah Carey recording her version of a Pavement tune, but it fits perfectly within this eclectic record.
And then there’s “Higher.” It’s the second to last song on the album, and at barely two minutes, second to shortest. It may be the best song Rihanna has ever sung, and boy, does she sing on it. Her voice is scratched and crackling, captivatingly so. She sounds like she’s in the middle of a long night in, with nothing to keep her company but weed, whiskey and guilt. “I know I could be more creative,” Rihanna croons over the brassy shuffle of the beat. “But I’m turnt up upstairs and ‘I love you’ is the only thing on my mind.” Her voice soars into the chorus, peaking on the title of the song. She pleads through the phone for someone to come over for a drink, even if it’s far too late at night. The song ends with her alone “with a little bit too much to say”, awaiting an answer. “Higher” captures the feeling of being head-over-heels in love with someone you’ve hurt. The haze strips away every pretension and self-serving justification until you’re unable to do anything but apologize and hope they’ll call back. It’s hopeful, it’s melancholy and it’s perfect.
“ANTI” is unquestionably Rihanna’s best album yet. A peek at the credits reveals collaborators like The Weeknd, DJ Mustard, Timbaland and Travis Scott, but her bravado pulls together these disparate collaborators and styles into a cohesive whole. Now, another world tour beckons, a chance to hear the new tracks slotted next to past glories. Only she can know if she’ll still be singing these songs in 15 years, but she will have an eager audience waiting.
Recommended Tracks: “Kiss It Better”, “Higher”, “Needed Me”
Listen if you like: Beyoncé, Miguel, FKA Twigs