Rihanna’s eighth studio album limped out on Wednesday night after a shambolic buildup – and it marks a new direction for her
Rihanna’s Anti album campaign has been a case study in how not to release music. Having missed her usual November release date in both 2013 and 2014, the assumption was she’d follow 2012’s Unapologetic at some point in 2015. Rumoured release dates in the summer and then in November came and went, while world tours were announced and annoying, sponsorship-heavy teaser campaigns spluttered towards an end that seemed unlikely to ever come. Then suddenly on Wednesday a new single, Work, appeared, which has now been followed by the album, albeit in a typically shambolic way (apparently it was uploaded by accident to the streaming platform Tidal, in which Rihanna has a stake, but someone bought it and leaked it before it was taken down. It was later reposted officially, before Rihanna then decided to give it away for free.
All of this is a distraction from the actual album, which, as the title and artwork suggests, is not a typical Rihanna album (none of last year’s three new singles feature on it). Calvin Harris isn’t involved. Nor is Dr Luke. There are no Stargate bangers, either. As with Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album, it feels like a very deliberate attempt at making a critic-pleasing, award-gobbling classic, perhaps at the expense of what makes Rihanna so good. In fact, Work aside, none of the songs really quicken the BPM, favouring instead textured atmospherics, and, in the album’s second half, a stripped-back minimalism that might scare casual fans.
Consideration, feat SZA
The album opens with crisp, airy beats, but Consideration’s sonic lightness is a bit of a red herring on an album that favours the moody and the minimal. Bouncy and full of pretty melodies, it features Rihanna’s increasingly impressive vocal dancing around alt-R&B singer SZA’s featherlight interjections, the musical calm constantly ruptured by Rihanna’s frustrations. “I’ve got to do things my own way, darling,” she sighs at one point, before the pair sadly sing “getting no peace” over the looped coda. It’s surprisingly lovely.
Despite rumours of scrapped albums and suggestions this final version is not the one she’s been working on for what’s seems like decades, James Joint – a frustratingly short interlude – first appeared back in April last year. Opening like a lost Stevie Wonder song from the 1970s, it marries a filtered organ part and some vintage atmospherics with a tale of getting high and getting off (at one point she describes how her and that special someone were “too busy kissing” to notice the police).
Kiss It Better
Opening with a distant synth pulse, the lovelorn Kiss It Better soon reveals its futuristic rock ballad intentions with a guitar riff (from former Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt). From there it unfurls into a typical mid-paced Rihanna album track in the verses before the incredible chorus takes it to a whole other level, making it an obvious highlight. As with most of the album there are lovely little production touches throughout, such as the zipping synth noises that flash across the song like shooting stars. A definite future live favourite.
Work, feat Drake
The album’s first single (if you ignore FourFiveSeconds, American Oxygen and Bitch Better Have My Money, as she seems to have done), is, in truth, the only song she could have gone with to lead into the album. It’s an odd mix of brilliance (“nobody touch me in the righteous, nobody text me in a crisis” is a perfect Rihanna lyric) and laziness (it just fades out for goodness’ sake), that almost works but feels slightly undercooked.
More so than on any other Rihanna album, there’s a reliance on atmospherics and mood throughout Anti. As with Beyoncé’s self-titled album, it means that songs can take longer to sink in or to even make you aware of what is the verse and what is the chorus. It can feel slippery. The buzzing, slightly off-kilter sounding Desperado is one that takes a bit of time, not least because it seems to be trying to do a lot of things all at once. But again, Rihanna’s vocal ties it together, sounding simultaneously frustrated, annoyed and, on “there ain’t nothing here for me anymore, I don’t want to be alone”, really bloody dejected.
The terribly titled Woo apparently features production from Travis Scott, the-Dream and the Weeknd, which might explain why it sounds like Rihanna herself is a bit lost in the mulch. It’s a creaking, oddly lurching dirge that smothers Rihanna’s vocal in an effect that makes it sound like she’s singing into a paper cup. It’s quite short on memorable hooks, unless you count someone cooing “woo, woo, woo” in the background like a drunken owl.
Produced by DJ Mustard, who’s been talking about his involvement in Anti for about 18 months, Needed Me is another mid-tempo mood piece that utilises an atmospheric finger-click beat and a strange synth sound that flutters around eerily. And that’s sort of it. It’s better than Woo, and might reveal its strengths on repeated listens, but it’s part of a bit of a mid-album sag.
Yeah, I Said It
This definitely feels like the part of the album where you might have a bit of weed-infused nap. Yeah, I Said It slinks along nicely enough, all airy piano lines and cut up vocal samples. Once again, Rihanna shows a bit more colour to her voice, with little snatches of falsetto layered in among the twitchiness. It’s only 2min 13sec long, which feels a bit of a cheat when you think about how many songs she must have recorded for the album.
Same Ol’ Mistakes
This is a bit of an odd one. Same Ol’ Mistakes is a cover of Tame Impala’s New Person, Same Old Mistakes – a song that came out less than a year ago. It also appears to be not only a cover but literally Rihanna just singing over the original version, complete with Kevin Parker’s backing vocals. It’s all really lovely and dreamy, with Rihanna’s buttery vocal gliding effortlessly over the spacious, psychedelic production (and you can sense the relish with which she sings, “feel like a brand new person … In a new direction”). It just feels a bit pointless.
From Tame Impala we head to, er, Dido. The delicate, mainly acoustic – seriously this is not like other Rihanna albums – Never Ending interpolates Dido’s Thank You and, despite all that, is actually pretty incredible. As with most of the lyrics on Anti, it feels much more personal and directly emotional, the second verse plainly detailing some sort of out of body feeling: “I knew your face once, but now it’s unclear / I can’t feel my body now, I separate from here and now.”
Love on the Brain
Opening like Beyoncé’s Superpower, Love on the Brain’s vintage soul sound is another sonic curveball. Featuring a loping, bluesy guitar figure, you can almost picture her leaning on a dusty bar nursing a drink and looking for someone to tell her story to. Weirdly, you could also imagine Duffy singing it, which is quite unsettling, actually. In the second verse her voice does things I’ve never heard her do before, which might mean it’s a guest singer who has not been credited but there’s definitely a bit where she suddenly channels Erykah Badu. A surprising highlight.
Another interlude that appeared in an early form last year, Higher is the point where Rihanna’s new experimental vocal tone goes a bit haywire. It’s actually almost unlistenable, which is a shame because the musical waltz straining to be heard in the background is really pretty.
Close To You
Rihanna’s done piano ballads before (Stay, Unfaithful, Take a Bow), but there’s something different about Close To You. Where those songs painted their sadness in fairly obvious colours, the Anti closer is more like a pained shrug than a dramatic denouement. Again it’s incredibly minimal, just some twinkly piano and Rihanna working through some lovely, but suitably subtle, melodies. It’s so delicate that you almost don’t realise how pretty it is on first listen, but slowly the hooks reveal themselves. Actually, that’s probably true of the whole album.
- Alexis Petridis’s take on Anti will follow tomorrow.
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