We’ve never really anticipated a Rihanna album before, since we’ve never really had to anticipate one before. For years, she was clockwork, cranking out a new collection every fall. Those albums would generally include three or four massive, undeniable hits and a bunch of other songs that sounded a bit like hits but weren’t on that level. On those albums, the least essential element was often Rihanna herself. She was an icy, robotic blank, a vehicle for these incredible songs cranked out by top-dollar songwriting camps. Rihanna mattered, of course. Each of these successive hits helped build her persona and show off different aspects of what she could do. But you couldn’t listen to these songs and get any idea of who the actual human singing them really was. That wasn’t the point. She was a sleek, exquisite delivery system. And because of her power to deliver those songs so well, she may have become the greatest pure singles artist of our young century.
It’s been just a little more than three years since Unapologetic, Rihanna’s last album, and that’s a perfectly reasonable amount of time to expect a major recording artist to take between albums. In the time she was gone, Rihanna never really went away, cranking out prospective album-launch singles and one-offs and collaborations. Still, it feels like we’ve been waiting for ANTI forever. In the years Rihanna has taken between albums, she’s paradoxically become more famous and beloved than she was when she was working as a human hit machine. She’s become a personality, and a powerful one. On Twitter and Instagram, she’s emerged as a party-wrecking, heart-mangling goddess, a presence who seems to float through the world and delight in the devastation she causes. She stopped transmitting music and started transmitting personality. It worked for her.
The rollout of ANTI, that long-anticipated new album, was a spectacular slow-motion car-crash, a major-label failure of the highest proportions. There were the endless delays and rumors, the reports that this thing was supposed to be some sort of Kanye West/Paul McCartney-aided power move. And at the very last minute, there was the accidental Tidal leak and the chaos that surrounded it. I keep track of this stuff for a living, and it still took me half a day to figure out that she was giving away free downloads to everyone, not just to Tidal subscribers. When Wilco did the same thing last year, it seemed like they were giving away a gift to their fans. When Rihanna does it, it just seems like the corporations backing her are dropping the ball. But none of that is Rihanna’s fault. And ultimately, judged on its own merits rather than the awkwardness of its release, ANTI is a fascinating and often rewarding piece of work. It’s not Rihanna’s best album, but it’s the one that sounds most like an album.
That’s because it’s the first time Rihanna herself is the focus of one of her albums, when the songs she’s singing aren’t the important thing. There is no “We Found Love” on ANTI. There’s not even an “S.O.S.” or a “Stay” or a “Shut Up And Drive.” This is an album without anthems. I’m not sure any of these songs will be hits; certainly, on first listen, none of them are the sort of song that immediately conquers your brain. Instead, it’s an album about something, a very of-the-moment LP about sex and drugs and disconnection. That doesn’t mean it’s a cohesive listen. Each new song feels like it’s going for something completely different from what came before, and it’s obvious, even without looking at the credits, that she worked with an army of different songwriters and producers on each track. Still, there’s a crucial distinction this time. Rihanna isn’t here to serve these songs. These songs are here to serve Rihanna.
ANTI is a consciously constructed album. There’s an arc to it. The songs on the album’s first half are all about living free and unencumbered, and most of them are strange and fascinating sonic hybrids. The closest thing to a banger on the album is “Work,” the Drake-assisted single, and it’s the closest thing she’s done to a straight-up dancehall jam since she debuted with “Pon De Replay” 11 years ago, and she goes full-on patois for much of it. “Kiss It Better” is squelchy ’80s synth-rock sleaze with hair-metal power-ballad guitar eruptions from former Extreme axe-slinger Nuno Bettencourt. (Bettencourt’s been Rihanna’s touring guitarist for years, but she never gives him chances to show off like this.) “Desperado” and “Needed Me” are hiccuping, stop-start fantasias. “Woo” has an assist from Travis Scott, Rihanna’s most recent rumored boyfriend, and it sounds like a Travis Scott song might sound if Travis Scott hadn’t stopped making good songs after “Upper Echelon.” “Consideration,” with its clumsy computerized lope, has to be the least immediately engaging song Rihanna has ever used to open an album.
These songs are puzzles, and they don’t always work. They reflect different sonic approaches, and none of those approaches are designed to encourage pop dominance. Instead, all of them offer Rihanna room to move, to establish what she wants to say. By and large, these are the most quotable songs on the album, and maybe Rihanna’s most quotable songs ever. “Needed You” has a better fuck-off line than anything Drake has ever managed. “Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage? / Fuck your white horse and your carriage,” Rihanna tells some poor besotted sap, not even caring enough to put some sneer in her voice. And on the same song: “You was good on the low for a faded fuck, on some faded love / Shit, what the fuck you complaining for?” And on “Woo”: “Tell me ’bout your perfect picture, darling / Tell me how you think without the drugs.” And later: “I don’t even really care about you.” (There’s extra frisson there because it’s easy to imagine her singing it about Scott, the guy who helped her make the song. Rihanna knows how to put her persona to work.) Even “Work,” which sounds like a straight-up dance track at first listen, is more of a warning: “You mistaken my love I brought you for foundation.”
Things take a turn for the bittersweet halfway through the album, a change that Rihanna signals with her recreation of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” I had the same reaction to that song as hundreds of thousands of others the first time I played the album last night: “Is that a Tame Impala cover? What the fuck?” That song has been dominating some of the early conversation about the album, and it shouldn’t. Sure, Rihanna is pretty much doing a Xerox-faithful version of the song without bringing much to it, though I’d argue that her vocal is a whole lot more confident than Kevin Parker’s. (And anyway, Parker gets sole production and songwriting credit; feel happy for the guy.) But Rihanna has been repurposing hipster fare for years. (In 2008, months before M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” blew up on the back of the Pineapple Express trailer, I watched Rihanna covering it live onstage, sandwiched between a Beenie Man cover and a Lauryn Hill cover.) The intriguing thing about Rihanna’s Tame Impala cover, for me, is imagining Rihanna hearing bits of herself in the original: “I know that you think it’s fake / Maybe fake’s what I like.” And in a lot of ways, that cover is the least interesting thing about the album. Rihanna and seven-minute songs don’t mix all that well, and it goes from a cool novelty to a chore pretty quickly.
But on the other side of that song, we get the best run of ballads in Rihanna’s career. If the Tame Impala cover was the album’s emotional fulcrum point, the album’s second half is the part where we hear her paying a mental price for all that hedonism. “Never Ending” is about convincing yourself that it’s OK to be in love, that it doesn’t have to be weird. “Love On The Brain” is a deep-cutting indictment disguised as a love song: “You love when I fall apart so you can put me together and throw me against the wall.” And on the crushing two-minute “Higher,” she gives us an all-time great opening line — “This whiskey got me feeling pretty” — before going on the hunt at last call. Those songs all do different things musically. “Never Ending” is an acoustic flutter that swipes enough melody from Dido’s “Thank You” that Rihanna had to give Dido a songwriting credit. “Love On The Brain” is note-perfect retro-soul that reminds me of Leon Bridges. “Higher” rides a distorted violin loop to Valhalla. And the closing “Close To You” is the lush, direct soul ballad that Rihanna’s been avoiding singing for the rest of the album.
Another thing worth mentioning: Rihanna sings the fucking fuck out of all these songs, especially the ballads. Early in her career, Rihanna was more a Ciara-style cipher on her own tracks, a blank presence. Here, she’s turned into a furious wailer. “Higher,” with its strained notes and cigarette-damaged grit, finds Rihanna equalling the wounded majesty of prime Mary J. Blige, not a thing I ever thought I’d hear her achieve. “Love On The Brain” deserves to become a singing-competition standby for years to come. And even on a relatively minor song like “Desperado,” Rihanna has a weight and a presence in her voice. If anything, she sounds like Stevie Nicks on that one.
Judged in the context of Rihanna’s older albums, ANTI is a failure, since it never gives us that one mass-catharsis endorphin-rush floor-filler. But it’s an intentional failure, a move out of that race. Instead, ANTI aims for something higher, and it mostly gets there. It’s a pop-art statement, an internal postcard from a woman who’s become herself in plain public view. Rihanna’s been a generational icon for a minute, and now she’s starting to sound like she knows it.