The biggest question during ANTI‘s protracted rollout was a new one for Rihanna: “What on earth is this thing going to sound like?” Rihanna’s career is built on blockbuster pop jams, and here she is rejecting “Timber” and “Lean On” while promoting “American Oxygen”. She passed on something like “We Can’t Stop”, which is such a Riri song you don’t have to strain at all to imagine her on it, and instead sang the shit out of Kanye and Paul McCartney collab “FourFiveSeconds”. Of the songs teased for this record, only the sneering, glitchy “Bitch Better Have My Money” fit Rihanna’s “give no fucks and take no shit” persona she had been crafting on Twitter and Instagram over the last few years.
And then ANTI arrives, and none of those are on the album.
But even that decision makes sense because ANTI is about subverting expectations that will inevitably end in disappointment. Note that this is a comment on the content of the album, not the quality of the content. As should be obvious to anyone whose paid attention to Rihanna since Unapologetic, there aren’t any chartbusters here in the vein of “We Found Love” or “Rude Boy” (even Unapologetic‘s singles were more about smolder than explosion). Instead, ANTI sustains one long, subdued mood; a night in that keeps the curtains closed, the house door shut, the lights dimmed, drink in hand, and weed to be rolled then smoked. It’s still a pop album, but one filtered through gauzy, electronic R&B whose hooks arrive unhurried.
Nowhere is this displayed more prominently on the dancehall inflected lead single “Work” (work!). Rihanna sounds completely at home on the track, playing with the hook’s repetition until the syllables break down like she’s gleefully singing along to her own song alone at home. It doesn’t scream hostile takeover as a single, but the gentle low-end thump and tropical flourishes should (hopefully) give “Work” a long chart life; even a negligible Drake verse doesn’t hurt the song too much. Potential second single “Kiss It Better” is covered in those watery 80s synths and plush electric guitar sounds that Miguel’s always been fond of, and benefits greatly from putting Rihanna’s vocals front and center. The melody’s solid, and Riri is able to play a lyric like “Man, fuck your pride/Just take it on back, boy/Just take it on back, boy” with just the right balance of frustration and anger and regret and plead to sound believably (relatabily) conflicted.
If ANTI is, on some level, about disappointment, it’s the let down that comes from romance. And, for about four of these songs, it’s the foregone disappointment of scrolling through your phone’s contacts late at night to see who might be up, mentally letting each scenario play out, and deciding none of these will go well. “Kiss It Better”, “Woo”, and “Love on the Brain” all mine this vexation for drama, but none do it better than “Needed Me”, likely ANTI‘s best song. Over an austere, frigid DJ Mustard beat that’s free of his trademark twinkling synths, Rihanna owns the shit out of some dude in his feelings because she, I don’t know, used to call him on his cell phone, saying “Know you hate to confess/But you needed me.” The Drake comparison’s there not just because “Tryna fix your issues with a bad bitch/Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?/Fuck your white horse and your carriage” is enough to send every dude in a Drake song running, but because sonically, Rihanna nails the moody, atmospheric but grounded aesthetic in one song that he’s been chasing since at least “Marvin’s Room”. She hits that same hazy sound on sex jam interlude “Yeah, I Said It”, just to prove the success wasn’t a one-off. That night in alone means talking to people you wish were (or weren’t) there.
That night also means being a little indulgent and a little aimless, and in this regard, ANTI doesn’t always work (work, work, work, work.”) “Desperado” would be a decent third or four single jacked up with extra synths on another Rihanna album, but here, she sounds unsure if she wants to take off with the song’s natural momentum. Acoustic ballad “Never Ending” and distorted Travis Scott collaboration “Woo” both remind me of the weaker material on Beyonce’s self-titled album: okay and inessential while mostly skidding by on the album’s aesthetic and the performer’s capabilities. Rihanna’s cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” could have been indulgent–a pop star covering an indie rock deep cut is almost indulgent by definition–but honestly, she sounds mesmerized on a track where Kevin Parker always sounds tired, like she just enjoys singing this song.
And the same can be said about her throughout ANTI, especially on the album’s last section. Rihanna’s taken more grief than most pop stars for vocals, but she sings the shit out of “Close to You”, “Love on the Brain”, and especially on “Higher”, a two minute track built on a dusty string loop and gospel piano where Riri goes into full blown whiskey-soaked rasping plea. It runs the risk of being too much, and an entire song in this howling style would be grating, but as is, “Higher” is the most impassioned drunk dial you’re gonna hear. The pumped-up doo-wop of “Love on the Brain” deploys her “powerhouse mode” vocals tactically, and works better for it–if nothing else, the song’s proof that modern takes on girl group soul and doo-wop don’t have to be terrible (hi, Meghan Trainor!)
So, getting back to “What’s ANTI sound like?”, the answer is it sounds like the album Rihanna wanted to make. And, despite the occasional misstep, it’s quite good, and proves she can do more than singles pop. For all the romantic preoccupations and longing, this is still a solid record to put on and just enjoy by yourself; the vibe here is don’t kill the vibe (it’s also perfect after a work day). It might get less radio play than her other albums, but it doesn’t sound interested in generating hits, anyway. ANTI suggests for the first time, Rihanna might have a life outside the radio. Hopefully we just don’t have to wait four years to see what happens next.