Rihanna dares to be an ‘ANTI’ pop star on long-delayed eighth studio album

Rihanna arrives at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. Allen J. Schaben via Tribune News Service

The road to Rihanna’s “ANTI” (2016), released Jan. 28, has been long and arduous for even the most devoted members of the Navy. For the uninitiated, the Navy is the loyal fan base of the 27-year-old Barbadian beauty, although the excruciating three-year wait since her last studio album “Unapologetic” (2012) left some of its members — pardon the pun — nearly jumping ship. Thankfully, Rihanna’s eighth studio album achieves what none of her previous records have been able to deliver: cohesion.

From her debut in 2005 until 2012, Rihanna released an album almost every year, establishing herself as one of pop’s most reliable hitmakers and as a fixture of Top 40 radio. But it is her singles and digital success that have largely defined her career, as she has sold 210 million digital tracks worldwide. Rihanna’s singles already comprise a veritable greatest hits collection with modern classics such as “Umbrella” (2007) and “We Found Love” (2011) defining the dance-pop sound of late 2000s.

“ANTI,” however, is a curious beast in that it completely rejects the hit factory that Rihanna herself has worked so hard to build. Instead of featuring production from the pop heavyweights that Rihanna previously worked with, such as the Norwegian duo Stargate, Rihanna’s eighth studio album features production contributions from some of the biggest names in hip-hop including Boi-1da, Hit-Boy, DJ Mustard, Timbaland, Travi$ Scott, No I.D. and Jeff Bhasker. Seemingly indicative of this sonic shift for Rihanna, the album does not include any of the singles she released in 2015: the folksy “FourFiveSeconds,” trap-infused “B*tch Better Have My Money” and patriotic “American Oxygen.”

The album’s opening track “Consideration” features vocals from indie R&B star SZA and acts as a sort of mission statement for the album. Rihanna embraces her native accent over the song’s glitchy production and proceeds to reject the expectations forced upon her by the music-consuming public. As she rips her way through the lines “Do things my own way darling / You should just let me / Why you ain’t ever let me grow?”, it is clear that this album is the antithesis to all previous Rihanna records, with the intent to challenge all preconceived notions of her.

In the context of “ANTI,” lead single “Work” is the closest thing to an uptempo song on the entire album. Featuring Drake and production from frequent Drake collaborator Boi-1da, the island-themed track continues to explore the dancehall sound that Rihanna has championed for years, yet it displays her willingness to slow things down and experiment with some autotune sheen, adding a strangely futuristic vibe. Compared to the rest of the LP, “Work” is the most obvious choice to be lead single, as the song is effortlessly cool and the hook’s constant repetition of “Work” is just as addictive as the “ella, ella, eh” from the iconic “Umbrella.”

First revealed on Instagram back in December 2014, “Kiss It Better” continues the album’s more poppy introduction, as the mesmerizing power ballad feels like a lost Prince single from “Purple Rain” (1984) with a 21st century update provided by rich synths and a punchy electric guitar. The chorus itself is nothing short of another artistic feat for Rihanna as it is sublime in every sense of the word. Even though the relationship she describes in this future runaway hit is clearly toxic, Rihanna does a phenomenal job of selling her fatalistic sex appeal when she croons, “What are you willing to do? / Oh, tell me what you’re willing to do / (Kiss it, kiss it better, baby).”

While the album’s opening tracks are among its strongest, it is the latter two-thirds of “ANTI” where Rihanna’s artistic vision shines, with an emphasis on exploring love and all its tragedies. The DJ Mustard-produced “Needed Me” is a ferocious album cut with Rihanna snarling over throbbing beats to remind her doomed lover, “Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage / F*ck your white horse and a carriage.” The doo-wop inspired “Love on the Brain” even makes a veiled reference to her destructive relationship with Chris Brown as she belts out, “It beats me black and blue, but it f*cks me so good.” On “Higher,” she sounds raw and raspy while she comes down from the high of doing drugs, yet this does not stop her from drunk dialing her no-good ex-boyfriend in order to tell him, “This whiskey got me feeling pretty.”

While “ANTI” is far from a flawless album, Rihanna’s creative decisions over the course of its 13 tracks represent a bold departure for a pop star who many would have previously labelled as a manufactured creation. By creating an album without any obvious radio-ready singles, Rihanna has forced both her listeners to consume her music in its entirety, which provides for her first full statement as an artist.

As she boldly pronounced way back in 2009, it is clear, “That Rihanna reign, just won’t let up.”


Summary

Despite being a divisive record, “ANTI” succeeds in transitioning Rihanna from a primarily singles-based artist to something far more interesting while ensuring she never loses any of the charm or ferocity that made her such a compelling pop star.

4 stars
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