Rihanna’s Anti, with its nonchalant release, nihilistic bloodstained cover and jagged sound is clearly a rejection of something, most obviously her taking another swing at the already crumbled remains of her pristine pop icon image, but also to a lesser degree the intrusiveness of the media and even the music industry as a whole.
Rihanna is still shedding some of her “Don’t Stop the Music” skin, which makes Anti a fascinating, if a bit rocky, portrait of a supreme pop talent on the possible precipice of a bold career turn.
The statement making starts early, as trickling bass and fuzzy staccato drums are the first sounds on the record, indicating that the bubblegum gloss will be kept to a minimum. Opener “Consideration” is one of Anti's best moments, as Rihanna lets her accent come through a touch more than usual, which gives the song a unique flair. She’s fiery and determined to deliver her message on her terms here, and SZA – sounding like her voice has been run through a thousand different filters - adds a bewitching post-chorus refrain.
Both “Consideration” and the ensuing “James Joint” work because they are on the quieter, more contemplative side. Sometimes the best way to make a point isn’t just shouting it over and over again, like Rihanna does on the gimmicky (but fun) “Bitch Better Have My Money”, which didn’t make the final cut and would have stuck out pretty glaringly.
The gear switches pretty abruptly with “Kiss It Better”, a maximalist love song that features colossal guitar from Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme. The track is the perfect blend of Rihanna’s chart-topping sound and her new direction, as is the cinematic “Desperado”. Those two records are a perfect snapshot of where she is as an artist, and work both as potential radio singles and album cuts.
Anti does run into some problems as it builds though. “Woo” is as forgettable as its title, and features a grating autotune hook that is irritating enough to warrant use in enhanced interrogation situations. The song doesn’t go anywhere, and bears such a striking resemblance to the work of her friend and possible partner Travis Scott that it is genuinely surprising his “straight up” adlib is absent.
Her cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” – here retitled “Same Ol’ Mistakes” - is certainly ambitious in theory, but it comes off as eerily similar to the original and quite safe as a result. Kevin Parker and the band’s camp are reportedly pleased with the cover, but Rihanna missed the chance to do something more daring by playing with the song’s structure. Hearing Rihanna karaoke Tame Impala for nearly seven minutes is like listening to a wealthy suburban kid recount how transformative their first trip to Bonnaroo was.
She succeeds in showing growth with “Never Ending”, a lachrymose, Dido-influenced acoustic ballad that works far better than you’d think from that description. Soft drums give the song a backbone, and Rihanna’s vocals, free from the excessive processing that comes with big pop numbers, are sweet and resonant.
“Higher”, Anti's penultimate cut, serves as a fitting metaphor for the record as a whole. It blends a soaring string backing with distorted synths and RiRi in full confessional mode, equal parts awkward and endearing. She leans on her superstar charisma as she belts the hook, and while the song isn’t exactly easy listening it’s hard not to be impressed with an artist pivoting and challenging themselves seven albums into a hugely successful career.
Rihanna might never do introspective neo-soul as well as SZA or futuristic Ex Machina R&B quite like Kelela, but neither of those singers will likely ever reach her stadium status. As a whole, Anti might not be as provocative of a statement as Rihanna hopes for it to be, but it’s still fascinating to see an artist in the midst of a metamorphosis.
There are a handful of tracks here that’ll stay in rotation for the next few months, but the real impact of Anti will be when we look back on it in five years and see whether it was the harbinger of a darker, smarter, more intimate second act for Rihanna, or merely a striation in a career of Calvin Harris-produced chart-toppers.