It’s been a strange year for Rihanna. After releasing seven smash albums from 2005 to 2012 and dominating the pop singles chart during that entire span, 2015 arrived with still no confirmation of a new album. At that point it was already the longest gap between studio albums in her career. Although she did score another #1 single thanks to her appearance with Kanye West and Paul McCartney on “FourFiveSeconds”, the two solo singles she released in March and April made practically zero impact. “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “American Oxygen” generated startlingly little buzz given Rihanna’s track record of massive success. Neither song was particularly appealing, and both missed the Top 10 (with “American Oxygen” struggling to a dismal #65). If those two tracks were meant to spearhead a new album, a comeback after a three year absence, Rihanna and her team must have realized a high-dollar fiasco was brewing. Not surprisingly, no album materialized.
Then last fall Rihanna announced the name of her next album Anti at an elaborate art-gallery event that seemed a trifle overdone even by today’s standards (except, of course, for Lady Gaga, but then she knows how to do it). Not wanting to get flattened by Hurricane Adele (a wise move), the release of Anti was eventually set for early 2016, but Rihanna and her team remained coy about the exact date. It finally leaked online, apparently by accident. By the evening of January 27 it was available on Tidal, and the following day Rihanna offered it to fans as a free download. It was clear from the moment of the album’s announcement that Anti was going to be unusually personal for Rihanna, and indeed it is. It has her creative fingerprints spread over it more than any of her prior albums. It’s like a series of diary entries, a succession of half-baked ideas rather than a cohesive album.
The album opens with the stripped down funk of “Consideration”, and as she often does throughout the album the Barbadian singer emphases her roots by affecting a heavy Caribbean accent. The track seems a declaration of independence, an issue that frequently arises when a young artist who is largely controlled by record label executives, managers and producers gets to the point where she can flex her own artistic muscles. In the chorus, she sings, “I got to do things my own way darling / will you ever let me? / will you ever respect me? / no.” It hardly seems coincidental that Anti is her first album not released on Def Jam Records. Unfortunately, there is little of the spirit and passion of that independence in the song itself, which is a pedestrian mid-tempo groove with no real spark.
The rest of the album is much the same. Rihanna opens the jazzy piano lounge number “James Joint” as follows: “I’d rather be smoking weed whenever we breathe / every time you kiss me / don’t say that you miss me / just come get me.” She tries for breathlessly sexy and sinfully playful, but comes off sounding like she’s trying to fill a role into which she hasn’t fully grown. Tellingly, the song was posted on her website last April 21 in celebration of the stoner holiday 4/20. Better self-editing might have avoided the inclusion of this lame joke of a song on the album. It’s followed by “Kiss It Better”, a sexy electro-charged R&B belter with a sinuous melody and a terrific vocal arrangement. It’s a moment of classic Rihanna—edgy, soulful and confident. If only the strong moments on Anti weren’t so few and far between.
The only conceivable reason why the vaguely dancehall-influenced “Work” was chosen as the lead single is the appearance of superstar rapper Drake in a slick guest slot. Otherwise, it would be a curious choice indeed. The chorus, a rapid-fire repetition of “work, work, work, work, work”, is borderline annoying. Okay, maybe not so borderline. Despite trying to build sexual tension, the song occupies the same wan, lifeless, mid-tempo purgatory where most of the album resides. Perhaps this is meant to be artistic growth—being less obvious about chasing after ginormous pop hits—but the absence of strong melodic hooks don’t necessarily mean you’re a serious artist. And if that isn’t the intent, and Rihanna and her team truly believe “Work” is on the same level as other lead singles from her prior albums—we’re talking the likes of “Umbrella”, “Diamonds”, “We Found Love”, “Only Girl (In the World”), all of which are impeccably produced mega-hits that help to define the last decade in pop music—then they they are smoking moondust in “James Joint”, not weed. “Work” just isn’t in the same stratosphere.
“Desperado” is a bit better, Rihanna’s staccato vocals riding a slinky groove with synthetic whip-cracks adding to the sexy Western motif. Yeah, the metaphor is stretched a little thin but the combination of a convincing vocal and a smokin’ hot beat makes it work. “Woo” on the other hand should have been left on the cutting room floor or, more appropriately these days, in the hard-drive folder labelled in bold red font “Do Not Use!!” Rihanna’s heavily-treated vocals glide up and down a spiky repetitive sample that becomes uncomfortably jarring. Songs like “Woo” are why someone was genius enough to invent the skip button.
“Needed Me” is mellowish dubstep-flavored electro-R&B that goes nowhere. Rihanna’s vocals, which are sometimes inexplicably slurred, sound dreary and tired. Maybe it was a long day at the studio. Whatever the reason, “Needed Me” is third-rate at best compared with most of Rihanna’s prior work. “Yeah, I Said It” operates under the same thick gloopy cannabis haze. The slow-grooving R&B ballad tried for sensuality and instead achieves somnolence. Much, much better is “Same Ol’ Mistakes”, the album’s strongest track by a mile. Rihanna’s vocals are detached and cool, shrouded in a wisps of silk. Her voice is appealingly soft, and the funky groove and subtle soul melody is reminiscent of some of Janet Jackson’s finest ballads of the ‘90s. Unfortunately her producers tinker too much and allow it to go off into a surreal computerized tangent that doesn’t really work. Despite that, “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is a tantalizing taste of what might have been.
“Never Ending” is an acoustic folk-pop gem of gleaming sincerity which features one of Rihanna’s most focused vocals on the album. It’s pleasant enough but has an aura of pointlessness to it, as if she’s just checking off a stylistic box. “Love on the Brain” is one of the more interesting tracks on the album. An old-school R&B ballad, Rihanna affects a Macy Grey-like drawl during the verses, while backing singers reminiscent of the Pips pipe up alongside her. Unfortunately we’re next subjected to the sloppily slurred faux Amy Winehouse balladry of “Higher” in which Rihanna overplays her role badly and ends up sounding farcical. It’s practically unlistenable—the words “hot mess” come immediately to mind.
Anti wraps up with the piano-ballad “Close to You”, which is lovely but has a faintly sad and resigned vibe to it as she reflects on a crumbled relationship. The result of hearing the desultory ballad after enduring such a caffeine-deprived album is that by the time it’s over there is nothing left but empty numbness.
Anti clearly tries to echo Beyoncé’s superb self-titled album similarly released with no warning in December 2013, but does so very faintly. Anti shares the sparse beats and minimalist electronic synth riffs of Beyoncé, but unlike Beyoncé’s album there aren’t enough strong melodic hooks to pull it off, and the sparse arrangements only emphasize Rihanna’s mostly lackluster vocal performances. We know from all her prior work that Rihanna’s voice has a unique and likable quality to it, and she’s undoubtedly released some of the smartest and sexiest pop of the new millennium. Unfortunately, on Anti she seems lost and unsure about what she’s trying to do and where she’s trying to go.
The downbeat Anti is a brave approach for an artist well-known for throbbing dance-floor anthems. There won’t be the usual bevy of hits that one can usually expect from a new Rihanna album. An artist deciding to go in a risky new direction that accurately reflects their personal muse is generally a laudable thing. Sadly, with Anti the intent and promise is more admirable than the end result. There’s a certain dreary joylessness to it that saps any energy the songs might possess. Rihanna has yet to grasp the trick of convincingly adopting different personas for songs that borrow from other disciplines. Perhaps Anti is an aberration, and certainly almost nobody goes through a long career in the music industry without releasing at least one bad album—perhaps this will be her only one. But after a three year absence, Anti is a massive letdown. It’s the first major disappointment for an artist who so far has turned everything she’s touched into gold.
// Notes from the Road
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