The day after Rihanna’s ANTI dropped, I was annoyed with myself. I was so hype to listen to the record, downloaded it as soon as I saw it had been released and got left feeling empty after a couple of listens, because I had bought into the year-long hype and had started to believe that Rihanna’s eighth record really would be a classic.
But why would I think that? Rihanna has a collection of singles that rivals any artist ever, but she has never made a great album, so it shouldn’t be surprising that ANTI fell short of high expectations. Even with some interesting tracks and charismatic performances, it’s mostly a directionless record devoid of big highs or intriguing moves.
And I don’t think I was alone in my disappointment. It’s hard to gauge exactly how excited people were by ANTI — by traditional metrics, the album is a relative flop, only because Tidal decided to give it away for free to everyone — but regardless it doesn’t feel like it really captured massive enthusiasm. Lead single “Work” has performed solidly but remains far from ubiquitous, and nothing else on the album feels like it has hit potential. Given the massive build-up, it’s hard to truly call ANTI a success.
So now I’m wondering, how exactly did we get here? What made Rihanna one of the biggest stars in the world, and how can she keep it up? ANTI won’t drop Rihanna from the A-List, and I’m sure tons of people will still enjoy the album, but Rihanna might have to step it up next time if she wants to continue dominating the world. Let’s take a look back through Rihanna’s career to see if we can predict her future.
Phase One: Turn the music up
Rihanna’s first two albums are almost entirely nonessential. You can literally stop both of them after track one and barely miss a thing. Both Music of the Sun and A Girl Like Me lead off with enormous singles and then drag on through filler song after filler song, as if Rihanna only had enough budget and industry clout to score one big hit for each record. (We can talk about “Unfaithful” as also being an important part of A Girl Like Me, but strip away the nostalgia and it’s little more than a cheesy young singer’s heartbreak ballad that’s way too Rob Thomas to be good Rihanna.)
But two very strong songs is an OK showing for the beginning of a career for unknown artist from Barbados. “Pon de Replay” is a fast-paced dancehall track that does exactly what it’s focused on doing (making people dance), while “S.O.S.” takes a catchy “Tainted Love” sample and makes it prettier with Rihanna’s voice, her lilting hook sticking in your head pretty much forever. Sure, both of these songs would likely be entirely forgotten by now if not for the rest of Rihanna’s career, but they remain catchy and fun today and they’ll easily make the cut when Rihanna’s Greatest Hits finally comes out (no small feat).
Phase Two: That Rihanna rain just won’t let up
2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad was the start of my personal favorite Rihanna phase, one she perfected two years later on Rated R: the “You should be terrified of me, because I will slit your throat if you even look at me wrong.” persona. Plenty of people will mark “Umbrella” as the turning point where Rihanna became more than just a generic radio presence, and that song is obviously a huge career highlight, but give me the Jay-Z-less “Disturbia,” an irresistibly produced track that gels perfectly with Rihanna’s newfound swag. Here, she haunts the sticky synths and relentless bass drum, suffocating the track by inserting her voice in every crack she can find and disorienting the whole dancefloor by layering hooks on top of hooks until every microsecond is catchy as fuck. With its lack of features and darker, more unique production, it’s the first track of Rihanna’s career that a lesser star wouldn’t have been able to pull off.
Rated R is still one of the most badass Rihanna albums. While it’s another Rihanna record mostly notable for its singles, those singles just keep getting better, and her run of hits just keeps getting more impressive. “Hard” is a radio song that, despite its near-meaninglessness, is still awesome for taking Young Jeezy and barely smoothing over his jagged edges (compare with Juicy J on “Dark Horse” or Kendrick on “Bad Blood.”) And “Rude Boy” … well, I love “Rude Boy” and I can barely explain why. It’s just a great hook overflowing with attitude — what more do you want from a Rihanna song?
Throughout the next few years, Rihanna sang hooks on festival-ready rap tracks like “Run This Town” and “All of the Lights” while also releasing Loud, which for my money is front-to-back her best record. Loud is the most blatantly radio-ready album in Rihanna’s catalog, but it came at a point when she had completely perfected the art of the single. The big songs here are the relaxed “What’s My Name,” where Rihanna and Drake get drinks and smile at each other over a mid-tempo snare and synth beat, and “Only Girl in the World” — still probably the heaviest shout-a-long chorus of Rihanna’s whole career.
At this point, Rihanna is a huge star — someone with the guts and power to pull a hit out of something as ridiculous as “S&M” and make listenable otherwise awful tracks like “California King Bed.” But she gets even bigger from here.
Phase Three: One perfect song
There are several well-crafted songs on 2011’s Talk That Talk, but only one of those songs actually means anything, because one three-and-a-half minute career-defining blast of perfection makes all the other tracks feel like empty space.
I want to talk about the phrase “lightning in a bottle” for a moment. It’s a phrase used so much that it’s basically meaningless, but let’s actually imagine what I’d get if I actually captured the power of lightning. I’d have a blast of nearly unfathomable energy, a pure destructive force of nature contained within a tiny space, ready to level any room, any area it gets released in.
Basically, I’d have “We Found Love,” a song that transcends all cultures with its easily translatable refrain, synths that hit directly to your pleasure centers and a build-up and release that is physiologically impossible to resist. It is one of the greatest moments of the decade, simply two professional escapists (Calvin Harris and Rihanna) creating the most blissful release and chaotic fun that could possibly be made and packing it within a three-minute mp3, giving all of us all a tool that could bring an entire room to a frenzy. If “We Found Love” had been Rihanna’s only single, she would still have had a better career than 99.999 percent of people who try to sing.
Phase Four: ANTI
I could never understand the success of 2012’s Unapologetic. Released a year after Beyoncé’s 4, it was a similarly confused, toothless move toward adulthood, filled with boring ballads and terrible decisions. “Diamonds” is easily one of Rihanna’s weakest singles, devoid of either fun or innovation, “Pour It Up” never hits a payoff and the filler feels like a 50-year-old ad exec’s idea of trap. And also, there’s a Chris Brown duet on here?
But somehow from that we all decided that ANTI was poised to be a classic. That’s slightly understandable, though, since the supposed previews we got were “FourFiveSeconds,” which blew all our minds because there hasn’t been more star power on one song since the first “We Are the World,” and “Bitch Better Have My Money,” a single/video combination that set the record for least fucks ever given, ever.
But neither of those songs even ended up on the album. ANTI is a banger-free work with a focus on vibes and grooves over choruses, and that style doesn’t play to Rihanna’s strengths. It’s entirely possible that the record is a grower, or even a cult curiosity, but after “Work” fades away there won’t be anything from ANTI left in the national consciousness.
Phase Five …
There’s a line from “Work” that I’ve been rolling around in my head the past week: “Nobody texts me in a crisis.” Is it too much to call that one line the perfect encapsulation of Rihanna’s entire career in the spotlight? We’ve seen Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj hang out and eat hamburgers, we’ve seen Kanye with the Kardashians on E!, but nobody can imagine what it would actually be like to hang out with Rihanna. She’s the Kobe Bryant of pop music — an immensely talented machine whose closest thing to a public persona is “winner with no time for human concerns.”
Of course, that’s not always a great place to be, and when you’re off your game, fans will be less forgiving if they don’t feel personally invested in what you do. While Taylor Swift has built an entire brand out of being close and open with her fans and Kanye has seemingly taken us along on every personal crisis he’s ever had, with Rihanna, we only really see her final product — polished hits or mediocre filler. If that hit well dries up, there’s little for her to fall back on.
Going back through Rihanna’s work, there’s a very obvious common thread: a few huge songs on every album and almost nothing else. Can an artist build a legacy off that? Do tremendous flashes of greatness make up for a lack of consistency? If the only Rihanna album I’d advise anyone to buy is her future Greatest Hits compilation, what does that say about her as an artist?
So I have an honest proposal for the future: Rihanna should stop releasing albums.
One of the best years of Rihanna’s career was 2015, when she had no record to sell but delivered huge hits with “FourFiveSeconds” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” and was forgiven when “American Oxygen” bombed because those other songs were so great. Throughout the entire year we had this brilliant anticipation for whatever Rihanna would do next. If she makes her releases more and more sparing, only putting out one song at a time, she can have that attention all the time, consistently using only the talents and abilities that made her a star.
One of the few things I can say for certain about Rihanna’s personality is that she doesn’t give a shit about the expectations of others. So why should she tie herself to the out-of-date traditional album cycle? We all saw what just happened with Beyoncé’s “Formation” video —everyone I know is talking about it, and it’s the only few minutes of work she’s put out in many months. If Rihanna can pull off a new singles-only strategy, she can be the subject of these national conversations multiple times each year while only giving us what’s she always been singularly interested in — the best possible hit songs. With just a few killer tracks divorced from any mediocrity Rihanna can break the Internet every six months, have the song of the summer annually and leave us constantly wanting more.
Nobody e-mails Theisen in a crisis. To be the first, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.