Album Review: The Anticlimactic Arrival of Rihanna’s ‘ANTI’

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January 27, 2016 will forever be remembered as the day Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, and Amber Rose engaged in the greatest Twitter brawl of all time and as the day Rihanna finally released ANTI, in that order.

In October, ahead of the release of Adele‘s hotly-anticipated third album, I wrote about how 25 was the event album that would unite us all in a time of bleak pop disparity. (I wasn’t wrong.) In that piece, I digressed in order to ponder the potential impact of Rihanna’s ANTI, then a still-mysterious project with a constantly-moving release date and rumors of trouble behind the scenes. I posited that Rihanna, at the time, was the only other artist capable of releasing a game-changing album powerful enough to unite an eager audience, but that I was uncertain she would actually accomplish it. But months went by without news, and the window closed, leaving on the other side of its dusty glass an unanswered question and a series of false starts and faltering singles. She waited too long, let expectations build too high, forced people to endure too much (the murky and ineffective “ANTIdiary” campaign, to name but one example.)

ANTI is here now, more than three years after Rihanna’s last album and more than a year after she released the album’s first single,FourFiveSeconds.” Its overlong, bloated campaign (which stands in stark contrast to the album itself, a remarkably short and sparse affair) ended with an epically embarrassing failure: shortly before its official release — it was all but confirmed to drop sometime this week — the album, all of it, leaked. In response, TIDAL finally, officially made it available to subscribers, all 200 of them. (Later, TIDAL offered the album as a free download to anyone willing to give them their email address. As of this writing, it is not yet available to purchase on iTunes.) Talk about ANTIclimactic. It’s hard not to ask oneself if everything — the rumors, the aborted singles, the shoddy promotion, the year of mystery — was worth the wait. So is it?

After a few listens: no, it is not. But it’s also not terrible.

The first thing most people will notice about ANTI is that it is lacking even a single signature Rihanna smash. Among its 13 songs, you will find no “We Found Love,” no “Umbrella,” no “Rude Boy.” You will not even find a “Bitch Better Have My Money.” This is not to say that any single taken from this album, including the album’s official lead, “Work,” won’t somehow become a major hit against the odds, but nothing stands out as an immediate, guaranteed chart-topper.

This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. For reasons that relate less to the music than to circumstance and the compulsion people have to find relations between unrelated things, I predict that the album ANTI will most often be compared to is Beyoncé‘s Beyoncé. That album introduced the world to a new Beyoncé, a mature, sexual, multi-faceted innovator. A creator, one who’d reached a new artistic peak and was willing to abandon her radio-ready sound in her quest for growth, fulfillment and sonic boundry-pushing. Rihanna seems to be attempting something similar with ANTI, but whereas Beyoncé’s album told us something new about its creator, expanded her sound and viewpoint (and still managed to give us a few bonafide hits), ANTI only obscures and confuses Rihanna’s brand and persona.

The main problem with ANTI, even more than the lack of typical Rihanna “hits,” is that the album, obsessed as it is with redefining its maker as an artpop siren, doesn’t make a clear artistic statement. It meanders, floating from one bleak soundscape to another, with nothing to unite the songs other than a stubborn stance against cohesion and predictability. Some of these songs work on their own but suffer when placed in context of the full album. The smoldering “Kiss It Better” (probably ANTI‘s best cut), with its anthemic, whining guitar enveloping its sultry, bittersweet chorus, transitions, poorly, into the banal and incomprehensible “Work” (Feat. Drake). Following that is “Desperado,” a track which would have fit in nicely on Rated R, Rihanna’s fourth album and her darkest until now. It is one of the more melodically solid songs (and a highlight overall), though it should be noted that it sounds almost exactly like Banks‘ “Waiting Game.” That song is followed immediately by “Woo,” a four-minute dirge, with a beat that sounds like a faultily-wired doorbell that won’t stop ringing.

Sandwiched between two of the album’s lowest points (“Woo” and “Yeah, I Said It,” the latter of which is hardly even worth mentioning) is “Needed Me,” another pulsing Banks sound-alike that, nevertheless, is good enough to serve as the album’s sonic thesis statement. “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is an entirely lifeless cover of Tame Impala‘s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” included, presumably, because indie music blogs are guaranteed to write about it. “Never Ending” is a simple, somewhat pretty folk ditty that would have paired nicely with “FourFiveSeconds,” which was, for whatever reason, not included on here. After hearing “Never Ending,” the absence of “FourFiveSeconds” feels conspicuous and strange. One wonders how many iterations this album went through before it arrived in our lives. From there, things, once again, immediately switch gears for the dark doo wop number “Love on the Brain,” which features one of Rihanna’s best vocal takes ever. Here, let me go on record to say that the best part of ANTI is that Rihanna’s voice — one of her most underrated assets — is often front and center, a pleasant surprise, especially when you consider how much her skills have improved over the years.

But for every winning moment on ANTI, there is at least one unfortunate misstep.  Album opener “Consideration” (Feat. SZA) is a jaunty little march with a beat that recalls Björk‘s “Five Years,” but it codes as more of an intro than an actual song. “James Joint” is a useless one-minute interlude that serves no purpose other than to force the listener to wonder how it made the final cut of an album with such a short runtime. The aforementioned “Work” is not only Rihanna’s worst lead single ever, it is one of her worst singles period. “Higher” starts out promising, but by the end of its brief two minutes, Rihanna veers into vocal territory above her considerable abilities, and the strained, painful screeching brings to mind Alicia Keys on a bad, bad day. “Close to You” is neither great nor terrible; it is a relatively straightforward piano-and-strings jam that is unashamedly attempting to recapture the magic of “Stay.” As an album closer, it is incredibly anticlimactic. 

Lyrically, the album is similarly all over the place, with Rihanna fluctuating between her two usual extremes: bravado (“But baby, don’t get it twisted / you was just another n*gga on the hit list / tryna fix your inner issues with a bad bitch / didn’t they tell you that I was a savage,” from “Needed Me”) and vulnerability (“There ain’t nothing here for me anymore / but I don’t want to be alone,” from “Desperado”). No song offers new insight into Rihanna the Person, nor does it shed new light on Rihanna the Persona. Whatever messages she wanted to impart with this project — through the music and through the poetry — remain frustratingly unclear.

And thus, after a long, cold winter, ANTI arrived: not with a bang(er), but a whimper.

ANTIhighlights: “Kiss It Better,” “Desperado,” “Needed Me,” “Love on the Brain”

ANTIgrade: C+