Rihanna's 'Anti' is not a Rihanna album in a traditional sense... but that's not a negative attribute
by NICK BUCHANAN
Like a stranded tourist lost in the bowels of dark city, it seemed as if Rihanna had made every wrong move possible in the past year.
Tease a cryptic album once a month for over a year? Wonderful. Release three singles without a defined direction or clear promotion plan? Super. Pretend the first three singles just didn't happen because two of them failed to reach an expected commercial peak? Cool. Release a "new" lead single that clearly ponders to radio listeners to recoup the ground lost via the last two singles? Amazing. Announce a tour to accompany the album and then wait dangerously close to the start of said tour to drop the album? Awesome. Release the album randomly for free via Tidal, omitting every song teased up to release? Fantastic.
Rihanna's hopes of making an impact with this album seemed slim to none -- but then I listened to the album; her eighth, titled Anti. A breath-taking effort, it is not. An admittedly fascinating one, it is: and that's all she needs to make some waves.
Don't let the "new" lead single, "Work," fool you: in some aspects, Rihanna isn't the same girl that released albums at the speed of light between 2006 and 2012. While "Work" is a sleek, island-tinged track that seems to be included solely to ensure that the album houses a radio hit, the rest of the album has no other radio-worthy tracks in its reaches. This isn't a Rihanna album in a traditional sense: unlike her first seven albums, in which three or four surefire hits in the veins of "Rude Boy," "Diamonds," and "Disturbia" were sprinkled in between twelve filler tracks, Anti takes a stranger, artsier approach that isn't likely fly on airplay charts. There are no overproduced dance-floor bops, no overzealous breakdowns, and no drumbeats heavy enough to wake the dead.
For the years that she was out of the game, Rihanna seems to have taken notes from artists just outside the Top 40 spectrum, almost as if she is out to prove the worthiness of her artistry outside of radio airplay. For example, "Desperado" rips its chord progression directly from Banks' 2013 track "Waiting Game" without credit, but it turns out to be one of the best that the album offers; an underlying Western vibe and low, grinding synths keeps a level of mystique, and the melody of the chorus is strangely infectious. "Kiss It Better" is Rihanna at her sultriest, immersed in a hazy, old school soundscape that fuses the worlds of Aaliyah and Prince -- yes, it's that good. She even tries her hand at some karaoke, reaching past the typical to cover alternative rock band Tame Impala's "New Person, Same Old Mistakes" (dubbed "Same Ol' Mistakes" here) and outshining the original. While the production remains the same from the original, there's something about Rihanna's voice embedded in that hazy soundscape that turns the song into something greater.
We know Rihanna can sing. We knew that a long time ago. This time around, she tries to up the ante: sometimes her voice is as smooth and reverberated as possible ("Kiss It Better," "Same Ol' Mistakes"), sometimes it's given a healthy dose of intentional pitch correction ("Needed Me," "Work"), and sometimes it's unfortunately grating. Her need to be heard as a gritter, rawer vocalist backfires towards the end of the album; she puts on the lightest little Aretha Franklin-esque touch she can on "Love on the Brain" and forces a ragged edge to her voice as she wails the notes of "Higher." She tries far too hard to achieve her desired inflection -- which is especially shameful when we know her voice is far from unsatisfactory any other time. (And if we need current proof of those quality vocals, "Close to You," draws the album to its end on a beautifully executed note after the one-two sucker punch of dreadful delivery on the two aforementioned tracks.)
It may be the most consistently-pleasing and the most boundary pushing of her eight albums, but those weren't the hardest title to win. In many ways, Anti still leaves just as many questions as the year leading up to it. Why are "FourFiveSeconds," "B—h Better Have My Money," and "American Oxygen" the unloved stepchildren of the era, outcast and left to die? Why was the highly-anticipated track that samples Florence + The Machine cut to just 1:30 and pushed to the iTunes deluxe release? How did the Samsung-sponsored Anti Diary promotion tie into the album at all? Where's the foot-stomping, over-produced, radio-dominating Rihanna? Why did she wait so long in her career to make such a change? How did the music actually turn out alright after she dragged this album through the mud?
I guess some mysteries will never be solved. Let's just ignore the mess, bask in the new music we received, and keep quiet -- after all, it's surprisingly not half bad. (★★★½ out of five)
Anti is out now under Westbury Road Entertainment and Roc Nation Records. Standard and deluxe pressings are available.
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