ANTI is the best Rihanna album ever which, if we’re being honest, isn’t saying a lot.
That’s because Rihanna’s never been about the album. She’s one of the digital age’s first superstars, a pop culture raconteur who has about fifty things she’s more famous for than the albums she makes. Rihanna’s not just a pop star—she’s a state of mind. She is, as New York Magazine’s Lindsay Zoladz christened her, “the High Priestess of Not Giving a Fuck.”
Lest you doubt, scroll through her Instagram and try to wrap your head around the closest thing this generation has to a true rebel without a cause. No other star has mastered the fine art of attitude like her. Blunt in one hand, middle finger popping out from the other, lounging in opulence wearing nothing but a sneer, she made every other “rebellious pop star” look tame and limp in comparison. In an age in which we prize stars for their realness and authenticity, Rihanna stands out for being thrillingly out of reach. Not that we don’t try. On January 25, she tweeted a picture of herself in a pair of $9,000 Swarovski-crystal-encrusted Dolce & Gabanna headphones with the caption “Listening to ANTI.” 24 hours later, the headphones were sold out.
And crystal-studded or otherwise, ANTI is a headphones record. Her past efforts weren’t about the album because Rihanna was a singles girl. Over the first decade of her career, she created and perfected a genre of pop which might be best described as “sad girl in the club anthems.” “Umbrella,” “We Found Love” and “What’s My Name?” were as influential as any jams of the past ten years, but they were their own stars. Rihanna didn’t worry about making the whole album good because the whole album didn’t need to be good. Who buys whole albums anyway?
The answer was and still is: nobody, which is what makes ANTI so deliciously subversive. There are no ragers here, no singles streamlined for mass consumption. One has to think a big part of the reason for its massive delay is just that fact. It’s easy to imagine studio execs sitting around, listening to ANTI in despair. Rihanna is a girl who can churn out an iconic pop anthem in her sleep, but there very intentionally are none to speak of here. If her past albums were meant to be played at full volume in the car or the club, this feels like something meant for the bedroom. Not sex (although it couldn’t hurt), but when you’re by yourself, the lights low, the weed smoke spiraling through the air and you’re just in the zone, man.
That’s all to say it’s an incredibly strong album. From its opener, the understated “Consideration” to album highlight, the hypnotic, Prince-y “Kiss It Better”; to the deliriously infectious, Drake-assisted “Work,” these songs float around woozily, relying more on mood and atmosphere than structure. The boldly experimental Ennio Morricone/Muse mashup “Desperado” is terrifically weird, almost to the point where it’s tough to figure out what’s a verse and what’s a chorus, or if it even matters.
Actually, there’s a lot of weird stuff on here, and it’s not always easy to tell what works and what doesn’t. “Woo” is a biting, acerbic piece of shade that does its star no favors by drowning her out underneath grating, Weeknd-helmed production. “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is a cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” In fact, “cover” isn’t quite the right word, because it sure sounds like she’s just literally singing over the exact same background track. It’s great, because that song is great, but you have to wonder why there wasn’t even an attempt to re-imagine the song a little.
Admittedly, Rihanna’s voice does a lot of re-imagining on its own, and it’s only gotten more impressive over time. An album as experimental and hazy as ANTI needs something to anchor down all its ideas, and Rihanna proves up to the task, mewing, growling, yelping and even crooning with a buttery vibrato that she’s never really gotten to showcase till now. It’s particularly golden on the album’s late highlight, the lovely ballad “Love on the Brain” and the far too short, whiskey-soaked “Higher.” That last one sounds like “FourFive Seconds” with one hell of a hangover, and it’s probably the best she’s ever sounded.
Speaking of that elephant in the room, “FourFive Seconds” and “Bitch Better Have My Money”—ostensibly ANTI’s first singles—are AWOL. In that, Rihanna recalls Kendrick Lamar, who seems supremely unbothered by dolling out dynamite songs that may or may not end up on his albums. And maybe that’s what we’re really witnessing with ANTI: the evolution of what albums can and can’t be, and what an artist is supposed to do with them. Rihanna has always been a pop star of singles, and she managed to release a terrific banger in “Bitch Better Have My Money” while still crafting an artistic statement with ANTI. Experts have predicted that digital media would kill the album, and that could still be true, but this year, one of the half dozen or so biggest stars in the world used her pop single master status to create an album without a single pop single on it, and it came out better for it. The digital era didn’t kill the album, but it’s making it a nimbler, stronger and stranger thing. If that means we get more pop statements like ANTI, then it’s a good thing.