CD: Rihanna - Anti | reviews, news & interviews
CD: Rihanna - Anti
CD: Rihanna - Anti
In which the world-conquering pop goddess puts on the brakes - to what effect?
It's hard to imagine what the weight of public anticipation must feel like for 27-year-old Rihanna and her team. A pop star for ten years, and one of the planet's biggest since the all-conquering success of “Umbrella” two years into that career, she maintained a Stakhanovite work ethic and has the startling record being equalled only by The Beatles and Elvis Presley for having US number one hit singles in seven consecutive years. But it's now over three years since her last full album, Unapologetic, with only a scattering of singles and soundtrack contributions to fill that gap, and repeated delays in the release of this one until it was suddenly put out without warning.
On top of this, her public image has been one built on controversy and transgression. Full of particularly Caribbean sass from the get-go (she is Barbadian born and raised), she has never been shy of near-nudity, aggressive explorations of sexuality, heavy drinking and weed smoking, and most recently – in the discordant and violent 2015 “Bitch Better Have my Money” single and video – intensely provocative games with themes of race and gender. Given all of this, and the presence of the never knowingly un-preposterous Kanye West as executive producer, it almost feels like anything short of heavy weaponry or live sex shows would fail to live up to the hype and excitement around Anti.
Maybe Rihanna is simply fed up with being expected to make in your face radio smashersWhich is why the single “Work” was met with widespread disappointment. Featuring the ubiquitous drone Drake, it's a gentle dancehall lope, without anything in the way of a blaring chorus, and it's easy to see why fans waiting for an explosive return didn't like it. Actually, though, bar the dreariness of Drake's unendingly smug and self-pitying android act – which thankfully is kept to just one section of the song – it's actually an elegantly put together little thing, Rihanna's sing-song chant is infectiously catchy, and the possibility arises that maybe she's just mellowing out a bit.
The tracks that surround “Work” on the album – the classily swung retro-hip hop beat of opener “Consideration”, the beatless Stevie Wonder-flavoured miniature “James Joint”, and the big, trippy pop ballads “Kiss it Better” and “Desperado” – only reinforce that feeling. They're fairly sweary, druggy and sexy but not in any “hey does this shock you?” way. Maybe Rihanna is simply fed up with being expected to make in-your-face radio smashers and headline-generators and just wants to chill a bit. “I'd rather be smoking weed” goes the first line of “James Joint,” and perhaps this is her stoner indulgence album.
“Love on the Brain” and “Higher” are all high-drama old-school soul vibes, like a mini-Amy Winehouse tributeSo far so engaging, but there's a sudden left turn in the middle of the album – the segue of the utterly bleak and distorted “Woo,” and the deeply weird electronica of “Needed Me” (which features choirs of gluey electric ghosts and the glorious couplet “didn't they tell you I was a savage / fuck your white horse and carriage”), provide a freakish heart in the middle of things. Then we're back to slick slow-jam territory with “Yeah, I Said It” – a sultry creation that Timbaland and the late Aaliyah would've been proud of in the early 2000s, the six-minute mid-tempo “Same Old Mistakes” and the acoustic “Never Ending”.
Then comes possibly the biggest surprise: “Love on the Brain” and “Higher” pop up, all high drama old-school soul vibes, like a mini-Amy Winehouse tribute. Indeed the opening line of “Higher,” “this whisky got me feelin' pretty” is as archetypally Winehouse lyrically and in delivery as it's possible to get. But they're distinguished by two things. First, the production is as futuristically crisp as all the more electronic / hip hop tracks, flipping quite a tired trope into something more original than almost any other post-Amy chanteuse has managed. And second, they bring home dramatically how Rihanna's voice has matured: all that drinking and smoking has clearly been paying dividends, as her always-distinctive but never technically brilliant and sometimes grating voice has had the edges rubbed off and there's some new-found panache to her phrasing. For better or worse, she's no Whitney or Mariah and never will be, but even on the relatively unremarkable piano ballad closer “Close to You” she's altogether a more interesting singer than before. And when you go back for repeat listens to the rest of the album, you hear that this is the case throughout.
So yes, Rihanna has sidestepped the need to provide maximum hype and has produced something that – while still produced like a million-dollar pop record – is considered, personal, peculiar and often quite wonderful. The funny thing is that if you go for the deluxe edition, the three bonus tracks are precisely the sort of banger that you'd have imagined a follow-up to “Bitch...” to sound like. “Goodnight Gotham” is a minute-and-a-half of deranged electronic high-camp histrionics, “Pose” is only a minute longer, equally manic, but full of distilled bad-bitch attitude, while “Sex With Me” is a slinky jam of such utter queenly assurance and attention-grabbing wit that it's doubly funny that it's almost thrown away in this manner.
This off-hand dropping of what could have been a smash Rihanna single feels a little like a message, as if to say “I could do tracks like this blindfold – giving the audience what they want would be easy; but this album is what I want.” I saw someone on Facebook describe the record as “like someone drunk texting at 5am” – as if that was a bad thing. Anti DOES feel like stream of consciousness, it IS cracked and intoxicated, it IS an indulgence of sorts, and the title seems to be a reaction against expectations. But who could have predicted what a great, fascinating and musically subtle listen it would be? This is far from a "fuck you" to audiences: there's plenty here that fans should be very happy with, but at the same time it feels like a step forwards into fascinating new territory.
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