Album Review: Rihanna, ‘ANTI’

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It’s been four years since Rihanna released a new album, a long wait considering she had put out new music every year or two since 2005’s Music of the Sun first dropped. With every new single, her eighth studio album seemed imminent. In January of last year, the Kanye West and Paul McCartney collaboration, “FourFiveSeconds,” suggested the eventual album would be stripped down. In March, “Bitch Better Have My Money” instead promised more of the same catchy fun we’d come to expect from RiRi. Then, a month later, the under-appreciated  “American Oxygen” suggested she would join the rising tide of black artists galvanized by Black Lives Matter. As it happens, none of those tracks appear on ANTI. Instead, it’s just as much of a mixed bag as those previous singles.

Given how long fans have waited, it’s disappointing that “Work” was chosen as the debut single. True, Drake is one of the biggest rappers in the world, but the song is a little too low-energy. It sounds like vintage island-infused RiRi but kept at a simmer and the song lacks gradation as a result. Drake brings his usual monotone delivery, but at least offers a nice contrast sonically to Rihanna’s vocals. Truth be told, there are quite a few tracks here with more single potential. “Kiss It Better,” with its wailing guitars and slower, deeper baseline, is the strongest contender. It’s sexy and yearning and sounds like something off of Janet Jackson’s most recent album—though without the whispering shyness inherent to the her voice

In fact, the album feels like Rihanna playing with a bunch of pop styles, trying to find which she likes best. “Never Ending” has a folksy, singer-songwriter feel. Bonus track, “Goodnight Gotham” is just a remixed sample of Florence + The Machine’s “Only If for a Night.” “Love on the Brain” sounds like a lost Meghan Trainor track with much more soul and much less vocal polish. Actually, there are a couple of places on the album where Rihanna is clearly stretching her voice, none more so than “Higher.” Much like the title, you can hear her straining to hit more difficult notes and she occasionally loses the melody as a result. Yet the song is perhaps the most urgent and exciting track on the album because it’s one of the places you can actually hear her artistry. Still, that doesn’t happen often enough throughout.

Take a song like “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” a cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” With its minimal vocals and commanding beat, it’s more musical mood piece than pop song. It’s without a doubt one of the best tracks on the album, but it’s also sounds like a song any electronic artist could make. Nothing distinguishes it as Rihanna. Though perhaps that isn’t the point.

In this and many of the songs on ANTI, Rihanna literally sings to herself. Here, it’s thanks to a delay, but occasionally it’s because she’s singing multiple parts in a harmony. And maybe the album is about her singing to herself in a figurative sense too. She’s not making a statement so much as trying new sounds through what feels like a collection of highly polished demos. And that’s fine. It’s fascinating to listen to an artist working toward the next step in their evolution, similar to the way Kanye West did on 2008’s 808’s and Heartbreak. His next release after that was 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably his best work to date. Perhaps Rihanna is on a similar path.

Rihanna ‘Anti’ Rating: 7/10

By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.