In the immortal words of Rihanna "the wait is over." After years of waiting, the world has finally been introduced to the ANTi - Rihanna, and this unexpected new entity signifies a new chapter in the Rihanna reign that just won't let up.
Yesterday (January 28) the pop gods were smiling upon Rihanna's Navy, as an employee at TIDAL inadvertently uploaded Rihanna's eighth studio album to the service before a release date was even announced. Months of promotional projects, buzz singles, and ruthless teasing of the fans all went up in smoke as Rihanna and her team rushed to counteract the leak by sharing the album's standard edition in some sort of official manner. One free download and TIDAL exclusive later, fans were learning exactly what it means to be anti-Rihanna.
To sum it up quickly, being ANTi means abandoning the danceable anthems and club ready bangers that we have come to lovingly associate with Rihanna. In their place we are presented with a sea of moody and experimental mid-tempos that move the pop siren in a new direction.
The album also bids farewell to last year's buzz singles in favor of a moodier sound a la The Weeknd or Tinashe. Gone are the folksier (and "fucking iconic") moments on "FourFiveSeconds" and "American Oxygen," and the club-ready ratchetry of "Bitch Better Have My Money" is sadly a thing of the past.
ANTi opens with a declaration of independence on the striding "Consideration," a collaboration with rising R&B songstress SZA. "I got to do things my own way Darling" Rihanna proudly proclaims with a heavier accent than we have come to associate with the Barbadian musician. The track serves as an introduction of sorts to the album's concept; this is Rihanna's attempt to return to her own unique musical vision while promising to keep things exceptional. "Let me cover your shit in glitter / I can make it gold" she brazenly brags before attempting just that on the remaining tracks.
Unfortunately all that glitters is not always gold...
Rihanna immediately moves into the dithering "James Joint," on which she entices a lover with her body and a couple grams of illicit substances. The song has been presented as an interlude; however, on a soundtrack with a scant thirteen contributions the track fails to gain much traction in less than a minute and a half.
"Kiss It Better" is an instant standout at first listen. Drawing influences from one of her icons Prince, Rihanna creates an intimate atmosphere over guitars and atmospheric production. The single feels the most reminiscent of Rihanna's previous work and will prayerfully receive the single treatment in the future.
Sandwiched between two album standouts, ANTi's official lead single "Work" sees Rihanna returning to the dance hall sound of her earliest releases. Unfortunately the result is a less than inspirational call to arms. Pairing up with frequent collaborator Drake, the single is barely comprehensible as Rihanna mumbles across the beat. As a result, the cut feels like a rough demo and is one of the weakest to rise from ANTi.
Selecting "Work" as the new lead single for ANTi is one of the strangest decisions that Rihanna and co. have made over the exhausting album release schedule. It's unclear if they were hoping to capitalize off the big name collaboration with Drake after a handful of underperforming buzz tracks, or if they truly beleived that "Work" was amongst the best of material on the album...
Luckily the album's low point is followed by the darkly pulsing "Desperado." Arguably one of the darkest tracks to make the final cut, the track allows Rihanna's deeper register shine over a sparse and distorted production. There is a sense of desperation and danger to the track that undulates with the beat as Rihanna decides whether to flee with a lover on the run. It's nice to hear a track that manages to be ANTi - Rihanna yet still pays tribute to the dramatic sounds we have come to love and expect from her.
Heavy distortions set the scene for "Woo," Rihanna first collaboration with assumed boy-toy Travis Scott and The Weeknd. Playing the part of a indecisive lover Rihanna oscillates between fury and lust for a lover. In a moment of power Rihanna sends the boy-toy packing, declaring "I don't even care about you." With its almost sinful content The Weeknd's influence is evident, but the track fails to make a serious impression.
Wobbling synth introduce Rihanna's empowerment anthem "Needed Me." The track is one of the most confident on the album, and sees the songstress reminding a lover that he needed her by his side. Strong production and a memorable chorus elevate the track and helps it stand out amidst it's surrounding tracks.
Rihanna is on the prowl on "Yeah I Said It," displaying her sexual prowess over a delectably raunchy beat. The "Cockiness" siren is clearly the ringleader in this sexual circus while declaring that she and her prey don't need a title to get down and dirty. The track feels like a continuation of Rihanna's sensual "Skin" with it's layered moans and sinful production.
"Same Ol' Mistakes" borrows from Tame Impala's "New Person, Same Old Mistakes" for a smooth slice of icy R&B. A series of voice overs on the chorus display Rihanna's hesitation as she falls into a relationship, but the cover fails to ignite any true passion.
The Dido-assisted "Never Ending" is a fragile moment for the Barbadian beauty. The track seems to discuss both her relationship with herself and with a lover, as she laments on losing a part of herself to the past. The simple production and stripped back vocal performance make for a beautiful and conflicting listen.
"Love On The Brain" takes things back in time for a compelling throwback hit; you can practically hear the scratch of the record player underneath Rihanna's sweet upper register. Signing about the dangers of an abusive relationship, Rihanna overlooks the pain for the sake of the good moments. Such dark content seems out of place against the traditional production; however, that contrast sets the scene for a powerful moment.
Rihanna closes out the album's standard edition with two true ballads, "Higher" and "Close To You."
The first plays as a shattered and drunken plea to an ex-lover while showcasing some of Rihanna's most emotive vocals. Her voice cracks and purrs it's way though the desperate and fucked up plea. While a little tough on the ears at points (homegirl really howls here), it only adds to the character of the piece. Clocking in at just over two minutes though, it leaves fans wanting more closure. Its as though Rihanna got a dial tone midway through her drunken dial, but we would benefit from taking things one step further.
The latter, "Close To You," presents Rihanna's vocals over a simple piano. The tinkling keys provide a delicate background for the heartbreak of a failing relationship. The track is fraught with heartache and pain, and it will undoubtedly find a home alongside Rihanna's classic ballads such as Unapologetic's "Stay."
A deluxe edition provides fans with three additional tracks. The first, "Goodnight Gotham," inexplicably features no vocals from Rihanna. Instead it is comprised of clips of Florence and The Machine's "Only If For a Night." Apparently ANTi - album tracks don't always require vocals from the main artist? Soo forward thinking...
Hit-Boy-assisted "Pose" delivers the brazenly confident Rihanna we know and love from tracks like "Bitch Better Have My Money." The brag heavy track comes a few tracks too late to truly make an impact on the sea of monotonous mid-tempos on the standard edition regardless of how enjoyable it is.
The final bonus track "Sex With Me" is yet another bright and brag-heavy anthem. This time Rihanna proudly declares that sex with her is, like so totally amazing. Though less encapsulating than "Pose," it's still confusing why the track failed to make the standard edition.
Overall, ANTi delivers a relatively cohesive collection of music, that falls somewhat short of expectations for a release from the "Diamonds" hitmaker. In an effort to present a more "mature" musicality to her fans Rihanna has stripped back all of the fun and power of a characteristic release.
Technically strong, ANTi leaves you wanting more, because it is quite simply not a Rihanna release without the fun. ANTi - Rihanna may deliver the sex and the weed, but she falls flat on any attempt to deliver the equally alluring raunch-fest of old.
ANTi may be a new era in the Rihanna reign, but we're hoping that the album merely represents one short chapter instead of becoming the norm.