Good news: if you’re a fan of just-released lazy mid-tempo jam Work then you’ll enjoy what ‘Anti’ has to offer.
Bad news: ‘Anti’ is a collection of lazy mid-tempo jams like Work.
Really, Rihanna has shot herself in the foot. With a dire and lengthy album campaign, hype has been built to catastrophic levels. And considering she’s always been more of a singles artist than an album artist, many expected ‘Anti’ to be a collection of chart destroying bangers. It’s not. Those days are over. Gone. And that’s undoubtedly a disappointment.
Get over what ‘Anti’ isn’t, though, and we can move on to appreciate what it is: the best Rihanna album since ‘Rated R’. That is, in terms of its consistency of style and tone – it certainly doesn’t have the exceptional singles we’ve come to expect from her oeuvre, but it feels more complete by comparison to, say, ‘Loud’ and ‘Talk That Talk’ that are basically singles hastily thrown together masquerading as an album. ‘Rated R’ remains her most conceptual album, an aggressive middle finger to Chris Brown full of hard-edged hip-hop vibes and a wildly angry tone.
‘Anti’ is…well it’s difficult to tell what it’s all about. In many ways it’s not what you’d expect from a Rihanna album, which perhaps explains the title. With no obvious singles, it’s an album of experimental mid-tempo jams, warmly textured atmosphere, and a more subtle sense of sexuality. It’s an off-kilter approach that takes Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album as a template in an effort to redefine her career as a serious artist. It’s just not all that successful.
As the album’s first single, Work is exemplary of its musical style. It’s an edgy, underground fusing of R&B, reggae and hip-hop that informs the sensibility of the album at large. Opener Consideration has an almost brittle beat with additional vocals from SZA, which leads into the Stevie Wonder-esque neo-soul of interlude James Joint that really deserves to be fleshed out (“we’re too busy kissing…here come the police”). Finally with Kiss It Better ‘Anti’ gets going, with its whirring synths and electric guitars lurching us into futuristic territory; later there’s the hypnotic mood of Desperado and the minimalist clicks and melismatic hooks of Needed Me that continue the general sense of sombreness meets intoxicating sensuality.
That also continues with Rihanna’s vocal. Frequently, she relies on an almost cooing whisper, curls of weed smoke seductively caressing her lips as she lilts in soft Patois. Outbursts of higher notes reveal a crackling rasp – Rihanna’s hardly known for a technically strong voice, but on much of ‘Anti’ she’s discovered a new, understated character.
Halfway through the album we have Woo. Even though it’s produced and co-written by The Weeknd amongst others, it’s a jarring, abrasive track with production that overwhelms Rihanna’s newfound subtlety. It’s 100% skippable. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Same Ol’ Mistakes that, in typical Rihanna fashion, samples Tame Impala’s New Person, Same Old Mistakes. It sums up the dreamy approach of ‘Anti’ and is one of the album’s best songs, largely because it’s basically a Tame Impala song with seemingly little input from Rihanna herself.
From here, much like the long-winded an ultimately disappointing album campaign, ‘Anti’ takes a turn for the wispy with a series of half-baked empty ballads. Close To You at least ends things with a touching moment of genuine intimacy, but for the most part ‘Anti’ just doesn’t have the depth, the nagging hooks, nor the aggressive punch of her best work. In trying to find a more intelligent, musical and subtle sound, she’s ultimately ended up with something that lacks impact and doesn’t warrant its endless gestation. Instead it’s a musical accompaniment to laidback, mellow, quietly enchanting smoking sessions – and it appears to have gone to her head.
And there remain unanswered questions. Why did it take so long? Was she forced to just release whatever she had by this point? Though the album apparently leaked when first put on Tidal, why was it then released for free? Perhaps due to Tidal’s lack of consumer base? And most importantly, what happened to the previous three songs originally thought to be part of ‘Anti’? Above all of this, American Oxygen remains the best song she’s released in recent memory.
So, ‘Anti’ isn’t quite the smart, slick album she’s spent so long slaving over. But it definitely marks a new, introverted era for the singer, one that will likely lose as many followers as she may gain.
* Kiss It Better
* Needed Me
Listen: ‘Anti’ is available now (on Tidal).