Review: Rihanna ‘ANTI’

ANTI, the eighth studio album from Barbadian R&B and pop artist Rihanna, marked a drastic musical departure from her earlier recordings. I will admit that Rihanna, during her musical eras that were more pop structured and mainstream centric, was an artist that always had a song on the radio I could get into. But past that, her albums weren’t really bodies of work but rather clumps and collections of slicked club pop and light R&B with the occasional hint of electronic dance music and contemporary urban sounds. I personally thought the Rihanna that everyone knew and loved to hate would never go away.

But then something interesting happened; Rihanna returned with an exquisite album, a true body of work to add to her former discography. And despite the few throwaways that are present on ANTI, it’s an entertaining and compelling album. Few songs sound the same, there’s a variety of unique styles and textures and even a Tame Impala cover to keep listeners engaged at the midway point (who would’ve guessed).

The LP kicks off strong with the track “Consideration”, featuring rising star SZA a female neo-soul singer. The boombap style track talks about ridding oneself from negative and controlling influences. In the case of Rihanna, this could represent her struggle to take control of her own career and her former label’s (Def Jam) constant interference with her work and personal style. For example, her 2010 album LOUD, the biggest selling album from a black female artist this decade, gave her no writing credits while she co-wrote 15 out of the 16 tracks on ANTI (all when excluding the Tame Impala cover).  To me, “Consideration” is one of the Bajan singer’s strongest lyrical deliveries and its metaphor inducing rhymes over both a puzzled and thought provoking reaction.

On other tracks like “Kiss It Better” and “Yeah I Said It”, the metaphors aren’t thick enough to cover up the reality of the story being told on them. And while intimacy has always been a staple in Rihanna’s music, the messages being displayed on these tracks aren’t hastily produced or intended for pop radio airplay. The former is a sprawling ode to 1980s pop and includes fuzziness and added texture, giving the track both a light airy feel and a thick blanket of character and style. The latter is a moody adventure through time and includes some of Rihanna’s most haunting vocals and co-production from recent production superstar Timbaland, who adds extra thickness in a typical Justin Timberlake style. Despite being fairly dirty in a literal sense, “Yeah I Said It” represents one of the strongest moments on the album both in terms of metaphorical lyricism and unexpected production value and instrumentation.

The more memorable and surprisingly deep moments can be found on tracks like “Never Ending” and “Close to You”, both of which deal with the struggles of revisiting a previously muddied relationship. On “Never Ending”, which includes elements of Dido’s 2000 hit “Thank You”, the singer ponders the possible toxicity of a budding relationship while reminiscing about a failed relationship that brought pain and abuse. To me, “Never Ending” is one of the best tracks from the album simply because it is so damn simple in terms of composition but so rich in content at the same time. I also enjoy its connections to Dido’s track, which is a song that I felt was timeless and era defining at the same time. Furthermore, the country inspired twang to the song is quite a bold move for an album of this sort and definitely took me by surprise upon first listen.

Similar to “Never Ending”, which proceeds it on the track list, “Close to You” is yet another tale about phasing out of a failed relationship. This time, however, the lyricism is more straightforward and less open to interpretation. In addition, “Close to You” is structured around a piano base instead of over a grassy country inspired backing track (as seen on “Never Ending”). Also, this track doesn’t address a new relationship and possibly signals the end of searching for the singer, who has spoken about many unique relationships on older songs in the past. Although “Close to You” isn’t anywhere near the best track on the album, it does represent a nice reminder of Rihanna’s multi-platinum smash “Stay”, which was structured similarly. At this point in the album I was sufficiently confused: do I enjoy Rihanna’s more mature sound or do I miss the trashier material that was always on my radio? A tough question to answer indeed.

Also noteworthy is Rihanna’s excellent cover of the Tame Impala track “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” (renamed “Same Ol’ Mistakes” for the purposes of this record). Emulating Kevin Parker’s sound on the original version from the 2015 album Currents, “Same Ol’ Mistakes” manages to improve on the original by staying true to the sound (Rihanna’s voice, like Parker’s molds around the production value) while adding richness and depth in the vocal performance. A haunting delight.

But past all of this, ANTI‘s best track is without a doubt “Love On the Brain”. A doo-wop inspired ballad that brings back old memories of the unforgettable and immensely talented Amy Winehouse, “Love On the Brain” contains Rihanna’s strongest vocal performance of all time. Without a doubt. Although Rihanna is once again discussing a tainted and physically abusive relationship (“It beats me black and blue but…”), there is something so brilliantly special about this song in relation to the other offering dissecting the same material. Furthermore, the chord progression structure and humming guitar also remind of Al Green’s classic hit “For the Good Times”.

Comparing her 2012 album Unapologetic to this LP, the Bajan beauty has transformed from a mainstream hit maker into a self built and matured artist with a real statement to make. At this point in her career, Rihanna doesn’t need to please anybody; the listener can either take it or leave it and based on the lyricism of the set’s more ‘robust’ and ‘outspoken’ moments (“Needed Me”, “Yeah I Said It”), she really doesn’t care which of those categories you fall into.

Best Tracks: “Love On the Brain”, “Consideration”, “Same Ol’ Mistakes” and “Kiss It Better”
Worst Tracks: “Pose”

Rating: 8.1/10

DrakeR&B/SoulRihannaSZATame Impala

cdschart • March 7, 2017

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