Rihanna focuses less on the singles and more on the album, perhaps for the first time in her career.
Rihanna entered the music industry on an entirely unprecedented run, delivering seven albums that cracked the top ten, as well as 20 top ten singles, all within seven years. She released one album per year and was a mainstay on the radio, with each new single popping up just as the last was waning in popularity. She was like clockwork— the surest bet in the pop world this side of Max Martin. All of that changed when, by the end of 2013, we still hadn’t received a follow-up to the previous year’s Unapologetic. How much longer could we keep bumping “Pour It Up” and “Diamonds”? People began growing impatient around two years ago, and after a sting of singles (“FourFiveSeconds,” “American Oxygen” and “BBHMM”) that pulled her sound every which way, we now get an album that not only omits all of them, but also does away with just about every expectation we have of Rihanna.
ANTI has no immediate hits that arrive sounding tailor-made for today’s radio climate, none of the European dance floor slickness that came courtesy of David Gutta, StarGate, Calvin Harris, and Dr. Luke on her last two albums. Very Rihanna-esque songs written by Sia and Grimes were rejected, and none of Kanye’s contributions ended up there either. Instead, RiRi opts for the widest palette of sounds she's explored yet, and a track-to-track flow that's more subtle and nuanced than usual. What’s most surprising, when it comes down to it, is how much ANTI sounds like an album, rather than a collection of potential singles.
She's still assisted by a veritable murderer's row of hip hop heavyweights-- Boi-1da, 40, Hit-Boy, Travi$ Scott, The-Dream, The Weeknd, Jeremih, DJ Mustard, Timbaland, Vinylz, No I.D., and frequent Kanye collaborator Jeff Bhasker-- but you can tell more about ANTI by the people outside of that realm who Rihanna chose to pursue. Artsy TDE songstress SZA gets her biggest look in the pop world yet on the intro track, underground archbishop of soul James Fauntleroy inspires "James Joint," former Prince keyboardist Monte Moir assists on "Work," "Never Ending" owes its melody to adult contemporary fixture Dido, and two big samples/covers of tracks by Tame Impala and Florence and the Machine are impossible to miss. Perhaps due to the unexpected nature of most of these collaborations/samples, they end up defining ANTI much more than the contributions from the more typical Rihanna collaborators.
What I immediately envisioned while listening to the album for the first time was Rihanna walking through a summer music festival. The sounds she allows to infiltrate her work seem to coincide with of-the-moment trends that come to decide how big-ticket fests are booked. Indie-R&B, breezy Frank Ocean romps, tropical house, Leon Bridges soul, Purity Ring-style glitch of “Needed Me,” skye-cracking Florence choruses, even a guitar line with the pomp of GnR, and obviously “last rock band” Tame Impala-- these are all the sounds that end up at summertime outdoor events across the country. If Rih was looking anywhere for ANTI's sound, it was at Coachella or Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo. Granted, most of these newer genres have borrowed wholesale from contemporary R&B in some way or another, but here, Rihanna returns the favor, putting her own considerable swag and charisma into a wide sampling of styles.
That it's still clearly megastar Rihanna singing these tracks is why ANTI works for the most part. She's every bit the ultimate badass we all view her as, and gets even more of a chance for unbridled charisma. "Didn't they tell you that I was a savage," she sings on "Needed Me," "Fuck ya white horse and ya carriage." The album's the best imaginable portrayal of her tabloid persona, the ruthless one that roasted Matt Barnes when he tried to claim that they were dating. She even takes time to throw away any rumors that she was dating Travi$ Scott on the same song that features him. "Woo" begins as lustful banger, but quickly devolves into Rihanna singing "I don't mean to really love ya/I don't mean to really care about ya, no more." Towards the album's end, she gets more vulnerable on a string of ballads, drunk dialing a booty call, recalling her relationship with Chris Brown ("It beats me black and blue but it fucks me so good"), singing about a "lost connection."
ANTI's by no means a perfect album-- some of the genre experiments get a bit awkward and I'm having trouble viewing "Same Ol' Mistakes" as anything but unnecessary-- but the fact that it gives us a sharper picture of Rihanna as a human being is commendable. It'll be interesting to see if this less radio-friendly direction is one she continues to purse, or else if it's just an interlude before an album chock full of more hits.