For her eighth studio effort ANTI, Rihanna has almost entirely shirked the high-gloss pop spectacle that is expected of her. After 2012’s Unapologetic — her seventh release in seven years — Rihanna chose to rest. Her rejection of songs like Miley Cyrus’ Mike Will-produced ‘We Can’t Stop’ and Grimes’ drop-heavy ‘Go’ were indications that a different singer would blossom from her Instagram-incubated cocoon. (Granted, both those tunes were Rih-jects for a reason — they toe a tired line from which she had already strayed; we just didn’t know how far.) More recently, the coffee house klatch of ‘FourFiveSeconds’ and the subdued menace of ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ showed that songs like ‘We Found Love’ and ‘Umbrella’ were no longer on the docket.
For those who imbibe Rihanna beyond her singles, ANTI opener ‘Consideration’ is a flag waving toward change. Her albums tend to kick off with propulsive openers: 2009’s gigantic ‘Mad House’; the Madonna-indebted ‘S&M’ on Loud; the searing ‘Phresh Off the Runway’ from her last album. The SZA-featuring ‘Consideration’, despite its slow-paced percussion and slinky bassline, continues this tendency, but also portends the subdued album that is about to come. And it’s about damn time that Rihanna ditched enormous party-starters in favor of her blunted reality. Tracks like ‘Only Girl in the World’ and ‘We Found Love’ are some of the finest work in her catalogue, but she is worthy of evolving, even if it’s at the risk of disappointing people who have been panting for the next ‘Where Have You Been?’.
It’s a risk she’s willing to take, singing on the hook: “Will you ever respect me? No / Do things my own way darling, you should just let me / Why you will never let me grow?” It’s a message that’s loaded with so much meaning, from demanding that she be allowed to focus on music that speaks to her own taste (later on the album there is an exact cover of Tame Impala’s ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’, because she’s a fan) to the media harnessing her to her past. What unfolds throughout the rest of ANTI — well, its first nine tracks — are musical hat tip to the kind of control Rihanna has always taken over her style and public presentation. The girl who “ran out of fucks to give” long ago has let the well run dry for massive pop spectacle — and she’s never sounded fitter.
“The girl who ‘ran out of fucks to give’ long ago has never sounded fitter.”
There is ‘Kiss It Better’, an ‘80s pop-indebted school dance ballad that eschews the hazy sheen of John Hughesian nostalgia that so many similarly-designed tracks are covered in. The chintz is kept intact, down to the weepy guitar riffs most pop stars would pretend never existed. (But this is a woman who featured Slash on Rated R.) ‘Kiss It Better’ is one of many examples of how Rihanna has refined her ability to do romantic despondency with confident precision. Instead of washing those feelings in huge productions, everything is stripped down to its emotional core. She has always delivered songs that beg to fix a jumbled heart (‘Hate How Much I Love You’; ‘Cold Case Love’; ‘No Love Allowed’; the list goes on), but here it is more palpable than ever.
The DJ Mustard-produced ‘Needed Me’ engages with the psychological tricks we play on ourselves when we get attached to someone who we shouldn’t and how that dismantles our sense of self. With ‘Woo’, produced by Hit-Boy and co-written by ‘Umbrella’ maestro Terius “The-Dream” Nash, she sings, “I bet she could never make you cry / Cos the scars on your heart is still mine” atop scorched earth. The song tackles how you can still have someone invisibly in your clutches as they go off elsewhere — and how you have to empower yourself in any way possible. One of the record’s crowning jewels is the breathless ‘Yeah, I Said It’, a flashback to the nearly-emasculating taunt of ‘Rude Boy’ but hued much darker; instead of begging, “can you get it up?” she knows “you can be rough, boy, but you won’t.” The line is rooted in sexual desires, but the pain with which she sings it is representative of the album’s running theme that you can mask emotions in substances of all kinds, rely deeply on your knowledge that not everything sticks, no matter how badly you want it to. And if the album ended with these moments — excluding the very skippable fifth track ‘Desperado’ — she would have crafted an imitable tome to romantic purgatory. Even its joyous first single ‘Work’, with the nod to her West Indian roots and a formidable, albeit slightly clumsy verse from Drake, is breakup ammunition. In it, she withholds sex (“dry me ah desert him”) and emotional support (“nuh botha text me in a crisis”). It is, perhaps, the most direct song on the album in its matter-of-factness, at least as aimed at the heartbreaker.
With that same kind of candor, although of the late-night text variety, is ‘Higher’. Rihanna sells the drunk and desperate confidence of the “whiskey [that’s] got [her] feeling pretty” by allowing her voice to shrill, mirroring the crackle of the sampled strings. It’s an anthem if you’ve made a lot of recent regrettable choices, and a reminder of the past if your days of liquored-longing are little more reined in. It comes toward the end of the album, which is full of odd attempts at Adele-ing. Rihanna is no stranger to balladry, but she doesn’t always group them, let alone for the album’s denouement. And while the final track ‘Close To You’ is in line with her signature heartstring-tugging, the ballad run is a little questionable.
These are confounding moments on an album that is packed with far more cohesion than any Rihanna has ever before released. Is it as fun? Certainly not. But so much of what Rihanna sings about is not usually rooted in fun. Her mastery of desolation and being torn apart in your own head now has a more distinct sound. She has been distancing herself from the frivolity of ‘Please Don’t Stop The Music’ and embracing starker sounds like ‘Pour It Up’, but here she’s found the synthesis. It is meditative, it can be gutting, but it is distinctly hers, even if you can’t hear her in it at first (or second, or third) blush.