Music Review: Rihanna's 'Anti' Is Her Most Surprising Album Yet

PHOTO: Rihanna arrives at Rihanna and The Clara Lionel Foundation Host 2nd Annual Diamond Ball at The Barker Hanger, Dec. 10, 2015, in Santa Monica, Calif.FilmMagic/Getty Images
Rihanna arrives at Rihanna and The Clara Lionel Foundation Host 2nd Annual Diamond Ball at The Barker Hanger, Dec. 10, 2015, in Santa Monica, Calif.


It’s been a long, strange wait for Rihanna’s eighth album and the set comes three years and change after her last record, “Unapologetic.” The weird thing is, for a number of years, Rhianna was releasing her albums during the same week in November, presumably to win over the post-Thanksgiving, Black Friday shopping crowds. As a January release (issued as a free option from the streaming service Tidal no less) this album definitely puts a halt to that trend. One gets the feeling that Tidal will consider this a monumental point in their roll-out since with the free download you get an offer for a free 30-day subscription to their service. Only time will tell how well that will work out as a business strategy for the company.

PHOTO: Rihanna - AntiWikipedia
Rihanna - "Anti"

The cover of the album was designed by artist Roy Nachum. It’s a dramatic and gripping image of Rihanna as a child over a red and white backdrop. She has a gold crown imposed over her eyes. This crown combined with the art not only brings to mind Jean-Michel Basquiat’s signature “SAMO” crown but is undoubtedly meant to symbolize the blindness one attains once anointed with fame.

As an album, “ANTI” is surprisingly risky. Rihanna said that she wanted to make more “timeless”-sounding music when she was interviewed by MTV in March of last year. Then shortly after she made that declaration, she dropped the single, “B**** Better Have My Money,” which seemed counter to that point. Interestingly, that track, “American Oxygen” and the Kanye West/Paul McCartney collaboration “FourFive Seconds” are all nowhere to be found on the album’s standard track-list. Whether they wind up on later editions will remain to be seen.

The first half of the record has a lot of bizarre corners, from the “soft-rock” retro-eighties cheeseball guitar noodling on “Kiss It Better” to the claustrophobic chord meditation on “Woo.” The smooth-R&B-hued “James Joint” lasts just 72 seconds and the SZA-assisted opener, “Consideration,” while authoritative and coldly sleek, sets things off on a quirky, off-kilter foot. This is Rihanna’s least predictable record, even if “Desperado” sounds like a future hit with its somewhat sultry electro bass-line.

Speaking of hits, lead single “Work” is OK, but it comes off as downright unimpressive next to Rihanna and Drake’s previous collaboration, “What’s My Name,” which may still very well be her strongest single to date.

The second half of the album is much more ballad-heavy and that works pretty strongly in Rihanna’s favor. She’s getting to be a better and stronger vocalist as time passes. For some, her vocal turn on “Higher,” where she allows her voice to succumb to its own creakiness may be too raw. To me, it sounds like she is taking a page from her friend Sia, who took a similar approach on her song “Eye Of The Needle.” Rihanna doesn’t have Sia’s vocal range, but there are definitely some vocal similarities, texturally-speaking. But such vocal vulnerability is refreshing in the over-produced pop world. But again, for passing Rihanna listeners, this turn may prove to be polarizing.

There are going to be a lot of people wondering what Rihanna has given them with this record. That’s a good thing from an artistic standpoint. As a pop star, the second you release an album that doesn’t ruffle a few feathers, you might as well hang it up. While this album isn’t quite as strong as “Loud” or “Talk That Talk,” it has enough gnarly edges to make you want to examine it repeatedly.

On “ANTI,” Rihanna definitely doesn’t go the safe route. It may hit some bumps in the road, but this album takes you on an uneasy journey that on some level you have to respect. This album may very well go down as a key turning point in her career. It definitely takes a strikingly different approach than her previous releases.

Focus Tracks:

“Same Ol’ Mistakes” This is a Tame Impala cover. The original version was called “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” on their album, “Currents” last year. One gets the idea that it is possible that Kevin Parker wrote this song with Rihanna in mind but decided to put it on his own album as the release of “ANTI” kept being pushed back. Considering Parker produced this track and it uses some extremely similar backdrops with some added reverb, that isn’t an unreasonable conclusion. Amazingly, this song also sounds much better in Rihanna’s voice than it did from Parker. For Rihanna, this track takes her into unlikely and unexpected territory that verges on ethereal dream-pop.

“Love On The Brain” This feels like the “timeless” music that Rihanna was eluding to making, with its retro-R&B leanings. This was designed to be a lullaby-tinged showstopper and it delivers surprisingly well.

“Close to You” This is a gentle ballad with a great deal of beauty and appeal. It ends the album on a perfect note, bringing some clarity to the set after all the adventurous exploration. It provides some fitting closure.

Check out other album reviews, including the latest from Savages, Tricky, The I Don't Cares and more.