Rihanna’s eighth studio album, ANTI, had much of the world convinced her career was about to take a blow. Between the endless delays, lackluster responses to “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “American Oxygen” and a horribly-executed album launch, Rihanna had dug herself quite the hole — a hole that desperately needed to be filled with an album full of Bad Gal Riri’s club jams followed up by her massive world tour to establish her mojo again, but that’s not what ANTI is.
After seven albums in seven years (2005-2012), Rihanna churned out hit after hit — there’s a reason she’s the only artist to have sold 100 million songs. But despite all of her success, her sound and approach remained stagnant, the only shift coming when she honed in on her technical skills with Ne-Yo (remember “Hate That I Love You”?), went darker on Rated R and embraced an island vibe with Loud. Beyond that, Rihanna’s consistent sound has allowed her to consistently maintain her Bad Gal popstar persona — until now.
ANTI offers the most nuanced Rihanna album yet. It would appear the four-year break from dropping LPs loaded with dancefloor jams and anthemic boudoir bangers allowed the singer to reimagine her own sound, resulting in an experimental album the blends trap, R&B, soul, psychedelic rock, hip-hop and, of course, pop.
The 13-track album starts with bass-heavy, defiant opener “Consideration,” on which Rihanna asks a slew of questions that, if listened to, foreshadow the change in Rihanna’s sound: “Run it on back, will it ever make sense to me?,” “Why you will never let me grow?” and “Darling would you mind giving my reflection a break / From the pain it’s feeling now?” The track features SZA and hints at Rihanna’s professional frustrations, going as far to say, “Let me cover your shit in glitter.”
And just under 45 minutes later it’s only Rihanna and a piano on “Close To You,” an emotionally raw ballad recounting a lover lost.
The journey between the two showcases Rihanna’s most diverse offerings, possibly even attaining the “timeless” sound she has been yearning after for so long.
“James Joint” and “Kiss It Better” comprise the romantic moments of serotonin-laced beats. The former is a declaration of a smoked-down love, and the latter features percussion and synths flowing beneath Rihanna’s electro delivery — the neon-pink aura the song exudes is reminiscent of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “All That.”
The first single from ANTI, “Work” soared to the top of the iTunes charts and took over radio, but the response felt mixed. The song’s not bad, but the chorus is one word and then, all of a sudden, Rihanna sounds like she’s ten drinks in(?). “Work” made no strong commitments to any singular sonic leaning — it’s not a pop masterpiece nor a trap house hit, but the stimulating beat and Rihanna’s quick delivery bolster its assets.
Rihanna in “Desperado” begins the shift in the album to darker themes and heartbreak. The cinematic sound finds sinister urgency in the sharp whips of cymbals and experimenting with tone, creating an effect of walking from one room to another, hearing the music’s volume and pitch shift slightly. Riri and tour opener Travi$ Scott take ANTI to its darkest chapter on “Woo”. The instrumentation — nearly constant throughout the song — is undoubtedly angry and the lyrics are more of the same: “I bet she could never make you cry / Cause the scars on your heart are still mine / Tell me that she couldn’t get this dick.”
Anger turns into well-earned narcissism on “Needed Me.” The sensual, empowered declaration of necessity tears into an ex: “But baby, don’t get it twisted / You was just another n***a on the hit list / Tryna fix your inner issues with a bad bitch / Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage / Fuck your white horse and a carriage.” Moving from sensual to sexual, “Yeah, I Said It,” co-written with Timbaland, is notable for its relaxed delivery and lyrical couplets and boasts enough sex necessary for a proper Rihanna album — the bassline line alone oozes sexual appeal.
Perhaps the most surprising ANTI offering is a cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” “Same Ol’ Mistake.” The cover, still produced by Kevin Parker, doesn’t stray far from the original composition of 2015’s Currents, but the dark vibe and thematic elements transition the album into its final act. “Never Ending” foils the complexity of “Same Ol’ Mistake” with its beautiful chord progression and unplugged production.
“Love On The Brain,” a retro slow jam, borrows stylistically from Amy Winehouse’s “Wake Up Alone,” to offer a tough sound as the song seems to reminisce over Rihanna’s abusive relationship with Chris Brown. The first chorus introduces the dynamics, “I tried to buy your pretty heart, but the price too high,” and the chorus furthers the tragic love “It beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good.”
The last track before the closer, “Higher” is the strongest vocal display Rihanna’s offered. No longer looking for the crispness of her previous pop-centric efforts, “Higher” features her raw voice, rasp included, in the soulful interlude to the album’s closer.
With her 8th studio album, Rihanna paints a vivid picture moving deliberately from track to track, showcasing love, loss, sex, abuse and personal growth. Waiting for ANTI seemed like hell to dedicated Rihanna fans, but it doesn’t sound like a party for Rihanna either. The album’s experimental feel for the established superstar may turn some away, but Rihanna’s made it clear that others don’t decide what type of box she belongs in. If ANTI isn’t a concept album, it certainly feels like one — and a concept worth waiting for at that.