Anticipation is a fickle thing, mostly because it centers around absence, and ultimately disregards the quality of the thing we’re anticipating. In its most basic and primitive form, the idea of anticipation hinges on the culture at large to come together and rally. For huge pop sensations like Taylor Swift or Beyonce, anticipation for new releases can work itself into a fervor. But for an artist whose last album came to us just over three years ago, it’s hard for me to accurately gauge where Anti, Rihanna’s new surprise new release, exists. I think it would be safe and fair to say that the anticipation for Anti rested in the balance of the pop world at large, and because of that, the loudness of peoples desire for it seemed relatively muted.
Part of this, to be sure, is that it never quite felt like Rihanna was gone. And Rihanna isn’t a pop star in the same sense of Beyonce or Taylor Swift or Adele, where a new release demands instant attention – the fallout of her dropping the album doesn’t seem to have reveled itself in a the form of a social media hangover the way it did when Beyonce released her album (the Tidal-only release pattern didn’t help). Between “FourFiveSeconds” and “Bitch Better Have My Money”, a new LP felt imminent but hardly exciting. Part of this is likely due to the transparent factory-style creation with which Rihanna’s music is emblematic of. Rihanna, like many of her 2000’s peers, made pop music like a factory makes cars. And while the pop music released by other artists today is still technically factory-created, we’ve seen a slight falling away with that aesthetic as a marketable commodity. Taylor, Beyonce, and Adele might be making music that is quote-unquote “by committee songwriting” but recent releases by those artists don’t necessarily FEEL that way. The theoretical concept of a new Rihanna album was pleasing, but it would likely feel fake and disillusioned with its own shimmering candy coated Top 40 sensibilities, just as “Diamonds” or “Umbrella” or “We Found Love” had been prior to it.
Knowing that anticipation is hinged not on quality but on media fervor and history, I think the best way to look at Anti is by considering that the muted anticipation for it ended up being indicative of what the album would actually become. Truthfully there isn’t a song on this album that even begins to capture that fake candy coated Top 40 feeling, and that ironically ends up being its downfall. Rihanna’s 2011’s release, Talk That Talk, is hardly a perfect album, but it certainly has a few pop hits that pay homage to the institution of the pop industry and, more importantly, the institution of Rihanna – a global superstar. “Where Have You Been” and, especially, “We Found Love”, are tremendous radio hits that captured what we WANTED from Rihanna. Anti’s name alone should have always been an indicator that this isn’t what we would get from her newest album but still, to hear an album from Rihanna that is devoid of any of these feelings or songs is off-putting.
The influences here range wildly, from Thundercat on “James Joint” to soul and Motown on “Love On The Brain” to the almost cringe worthy copycat Tame Impala cover “Same Old Mistake”. These songs are fairly disconnected until the end, when she delivers a series of no bullshit ballads in the vein of “Sway”, songs that feel sensitive and sweet. “Close To You” (unfortunately not a cover of The Cure) as an album closer is probably the most honest moment we’ve had in the history of Rihanna’s discography and, shockingly, it works.
Still, other than maybe the Drake assisted “Work”, none of these songs feel fit for radio and none of them deliver anything half as bold and guiltless as “We Found Love”. Even “Work” only gets the nod due to featuring hip-hop’s current golden boy, because its sparse production and hookless meandering doesn’t make it a particularly exciting song – a song that the old Rihanna would’ve found a way to sparkle. Anti is a rejection of the Rihanna of the past, and as exciting and fresh as it feels given her history, I can’t say it’s a particularly great album.
The first three tracks immediately establish that tonally this album will be all over the place, and while “James Joint” is a fantastic song, it and the SZA assisted “Consideration” are both just short enough to give the record a feeling of disastisfaction. “Kiss It Better”, a song that could fit on any dated 1980’s science fiction film soundtrack, is one of the biggest sounding on the album save maybe (MAYBE) “Desperado” and that’s when you realize this is maybe not the Rihanna album we were looking for. Certainly the closing half of this record is fantastic, but the lack of movement from big studio creations and radio chasing singles to these more low key powerhouse vocal performances is an unfortunate shame. Consider for a moment that she covers a TAME IMPALA song on this album. Tame Impala, the down under psych rockers who pretended they were the Bee Gee’s last year? Those guys? And she does so with a Xeroxed copy of the song that proves one thing: A Rihanna song that’s over 6 minutes is something we never need again.
In the time during the muted anticipation of Anti, a world without new Rihanna albums every year began to unfold and, surprisingly, that world didn’t seem to need a new Rihanna album. There was excitement, yes, but Anti should have been viewed as something potentially special and the anticipation for the album was never reflective of that. Instead, a collective shrug seems to be made all around. This isn’t a bad album. It’s not a great album, but it’s far from bad. But most importantly, it represents a reinvention for an artist that didn’t need one, and while its making steps in a great direction, placing her in a conversation with artists like SZA or FKA twigs rather than Beyonce, its shift in artistry seems to imply that the Rihanna we once knew and probably enjoyed is moving on. Navigating the music industry is a game of chess, not checkers, and Anti safely takes away the knight so one day she can checkmate the King.