Rihanna, for a very long period of time, was a pop force of nature.
She wasn’t a nuanced artist. She wasn’t a music-industry curio. She was a pop star—a supernova—and she shined bright like a diamond.
No. 1s—13 of them—came with rapid-fire ease, as if manufactured on a conveyor belt. Arguments raged whether you bowed down to Queen RiRi or Queen Bey. She wasn’t like Taylor Swift or Katy Perry or Adele, artists who, by and large, manufactured blockbuster success on the illusion that they could be your best friend, if you actually knew them.
Rihanna could never be your best friend. She’s far too cool to ever pay you mind.
Her Instagram has no carefully curated photos of her #squad, and she’s not toning down her “California Gurl” eccentricities to present at the Golden Globe awards—#redcarpetgoals. No, she’s Instagramming photos of herself wearing $9,000 Dolce & Gabbana headphones. She walks down red carpets with her nipples out. A survey of her posts suggest she exists in a permanent cloud of weed smoke.
Oh yes, Rihanna is cool. And that’s precisely why we feel so privileged to scream and shout her club bangers, watered-down vodka sodas in hand.
They are chants of nonsense—pop incantations, really: “Oh nah nah;” “Ella ella eh;” “Bitch better have my money.” They are powerful ear worms with booming beats so catchy and so energizing that your excitement explodes as her music crescendoes.
Yes, we found love in a hopeless place. That hopeless place: our existence. The object of our affection: Rihanna. For she’s the one who is saving us, with her hits. Her hits.
And thus lies the problem with Anti. There are none.
Fans have been waiting nearly four years for Rihanna, who for the greater part of the last decade has produced new music at an unfathomable clip. RiRi never left us entirely, per se, her coolness reigning over scattershot hits like “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “FourFiveSeconds.”
Neither of those songs appear on Anti.
It’s why for many, the insufferably teased release of Anti is so, well, anticlimactic.
The album is a case study in the worst way to release new music; perhaps Rihanna’s team confused “ramping up anticipation” with “torturing fans.” Announced release dates were missed. Rumored release dates came and went, too. A world tour was announced without an album to accompany it. She teamed with Samsung for the most shameless corporate tie-ins that any artist of her stature has ever participated in—baiting fans with hints to her new album’s content without, you know, giving them any. For four years.
Well, Anti is finally here. And it is here without hits. Nottaone. Zilch. For more than three years, fans have been salivating, waiting for those juicy bangers, those dancehall smashes, those songs we won’t be able to get out of our heads and won’t even want to.
There’s none of that on Anti. The question, then, becomes whether Rihanna has failed us. Has pop’s coolest cool girl let us down?
This is the part, though, where we laud praise on the album.
Perhaps more than any effort she’s given us before, Rihanna is an artist here. She’s almost unrecognizable, in a way that’s musically refreshing. Her frequent collaborators Calvin Harris and Dr. Luke aren’t there. Because of the lack of hits, some might be tempted to say Rihanna’s releasing this album with a shrug. Really, it’s brimming with musical ambition.
“Consideration” opens with Rihanna wailing more full-voiced than we’re used to hearing her over a light, staccato beat. It’s a light appetizer for what ends up being a rich meal that, given Rihanna’s flaunted proclivities, is most likely intended to be consumed slowly and meditatively after a toke.
Fittingly, the next track, “James Joint,” opens with a mission statement: “I’d rather be smoking weed.” The song is all atmospherics, a carefully curated sonic concoction for you to get high to and get high off. Then she gets going.
“Kiss It Better” is a rock ballad sent from the future. It’s the song on which Rihanna sounds most familiar, that harsh voice of hers cutting through mesmerizing swirls of electronica, made all the more interesting here with the usual synthesizer swapped for an electric guitar. Lyrically, it’s the typical push-and-pull ruminating that defines the best Rihanna songs about love, alternately pleading—“What are you willing to do? / Oh, tell me what you’re willing to do”— and demanding: “Man, fuck your pride, just take it on back boy.”
The album’s first single, “Work,” is really the only song that could play that role, a fact that is sure to disappoint those who prefer their Rihanna tracks to torch from the speakers with dancing flames in tow. Featuring Drake, “Work” is low-key. The groove is undeniable, aided by the lyrical repetition. The refrain? “Work,” just over and over. The track’s ease almost makes it seem half-baked, as if it’s an unfinished sample waiting for production to add those sonic fireworks we expect.
But there are no fireworks on Anti. This isn’t an album for the club days. It’s an album for the days of Netflix and chill. Anti is nothing if not chill.
“Desperado” and “Woo” don’t so much boom as they reverberate. Anti is all about atmosphere, and the one that Rihanna is creating is at the very least musically interesting—if sometimes even bordering on bizarre. You’re almost frustrated through most of the songs, waiting for them to take off, only to realize they’re confident and content marinating where they are.
“Needed Me,” “Yeah I Said It,” “Same Ol’ Mistakes”: They’re trippy, trappy, mid-tempo jams. They’re good, perhaps even great, R&B songs. They’re unexpected, quite honestly, from Rihanna, as if descendants from Beyoncé’s self-titled album several years ago, itself a body of work more interested in creating a musical experience than radio singles.
The issue with Anti, though, is that nothing on Anti provokes or excites as much as, say, “Drunk in Love” or “Partition” or “XO.”
Which brings us to Anti’s standout track. “Love on the Brain” is a gorgeous retro masterpiece. Rihanna’s vocals have never been this playful, this soulful, this nuanced. It’s dark and whimsical, and stirs you in the way that a song not so much performed as it is emoted, felt, should. It might be one of Rihanna’s best vocal performances, and maybe even one of her best songs.
You’re probably going to be sad that Amy Winehouse isn’t singing it.
That last bit is to say that you can’t talk about Rihanna without talking about her contemporaries, particularly at a time when, in the last few years, pop’s biggest female artists have been asked to defend themselves, each following up the biggest albums of their career.
There’s Katy Perry, whose Prism signaled a performer desperate to mature, to mixed results. Lady Gaga’s ArtPOP argued the value of artistic experimentation in favor of adherence to brand—a move that was reviled at the moment but should merit reevaluation when it’s revisited in the retrospective of her career.
Taylor Swift went the route of reinventing herself for the radio, leaning so far into her new mission as pop diva that she nearly fell over. Adele opted to go the if-it-ain’t-broke route, delivering an album that was pretty much exactly the same as the one fans fell in love with. It was a rousing success.
You have to think that Anti is a release most in line with Beyoncé, in that here is an artist known for topping charts who would rather be known for topping critics’ lists. The difference? Ms. Knowles already had her foot in that game. Ms. Fenty did not—and her fans almost loved her more for it.
Is it a betrayal, then, to release something like Anti? There’s nothing to dance to here. Nothing to shout along to. Nothing even, really, to celebrate. It’s a good, quiet album, confusingly from one of music’s loudest performers.
So in that regard, has Rihanna failed us? Maybe. And that might be her coolest move yet.