Album review: Anti by Rihanna

John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.
John Preston

Arguably 2009’s Rated R has been Rihanna’s most successful attempt at making a album that wasn’t just about its singles. Like all of her full-length releases it wasn’t perfect but it had a mood – murky, dank and defensive – that permeated throughout its playing time. Its themes ran deep and appeared to be personal and followed the physical attack made against her by Chris Brown.

Rated R is also Rihanna’s most musically ‘urban’ record to date. 2012’s Unapologetic was a close second but that record suffered with the likes of, amongst others, a piss-poor David Guetta track (featuring Chris Brown on vocals no less) compromising its initial intent. This was also, significantly it seems now, Rihanna’s last record in a trilogy of albums all of which were released within a year of one another.

Anti arrives following a disastrously long, pretentious and inept media campaign that resulted in Anti fatigue and near contempt for the star’s unending sense of self importance. And now that it is here, this has only succeeded in securing a higher level of scrutiny towards its contents than one might usually expect for an artist that can repeatedly knock up an album in under 12 months.

It’s a relief then that Anti, Rihanna’s eighth album, bears up to close inspection and, in fact, it demands it of the listener.

Everything about the Rihanna of this record is spurious and often wonderfully contrary. Full of dead ends, wilful experimentations, occasional ornate prettiness, garish vocal takes and an overwhelming sense of freedom, there are no obvious concessions given to the proven Rihanna template.

Many will find this infuriating and self indulgent but oddly Anti is in many ways her most Rihanna-sounding record so far.

‘Consideration’ opens the album with a regimental, crisp and metallic hip-hop beat and Rihanna’s beatific vocal, where she answers her own question (‘Will you ever respect me? No’) and goes on to feature the hysterical line ‘let me cover your shit in glitter / I could make it gold’.

Self-possessed and playing only on her terms, this is the Rihanna a generation has grown up with. The previously released ‘James Joint’ follows, still in its original one-minute-12-second format and ‘Kiss Me Better’, which was first teased on Instagram months ago, finally appears as a mid-tempo, guitar-tooled finished track. It’s great but is not essential Rihanna.

Following on from this opening salvo of somewhat disparate styles, Anti settles into its groove for a while with shredded, trippy trap.

‘Work’, heard the day before the album’s premature and botched appearance on Tidal, is minimal and alienating. On first hearing it appears to have dispensed with any hooks. Rihanna sounds raw and possibly worse for wear, repeatedly using the word ‘work’ until it loses its meaning and morphs slurrily into ‘wer’ and then ‘der’.

Drake quests on the last verse and, finally, when you’ve heard the track for the fourth time, everything that came across as sloppy and unfocused wonderfully falls into place. It’s definitely pop but maybe not as we know it.

‘Desperado’ has a swaying waltz tempo that sticks closely to a nihilistic R&B doom-scape and ‘Woo’ is seemingly without structure (a misleading trick though) and forcefully ugly in its sonic intention.

‘Same Ol’ Mistakes’ is a real curio, essentially a near seven-minute cover version of the bass-led dream-pop Tame Impala album track ‘New Person, Same Mistakes’. Rihanna sings sweetly and directly over the Impala instrumental. It works surprisingly well but has considerably more power if you’re unfamiliar with the musically identical original.

There are more styles that Rihanna plays with on Anti. ‘Love on the Brain’ is a straightforward, doo-wop prom song that no parent would have ever endorsed. The lurid blues of ‘Higher’ take place several hours – and decades – later.

Rihanna’s vocals are not only mixed so high up in the mix that it sounds as though she is singing, loudly, next to you but her delivery is that of a possessed sex pest who is well past the point of redemption or concern. She sounds incredible and ‘Higher’ proves that Rihanna has the vision and the talent to survive and enthral for several more reincarnations.

So, does Anti deliver what is essentially Rihanna’s first full-length masterpiece? This is something that has been almost taken for granted, or at least hoped for, since the artist’s constant insistence that the album was almost ready but not quite. The delays implied that time was irrelevant and that it was quality that mattered this time around.

Well, no, this isn’t her classic album – not quite. Rihanna has probably never sounded as vital as she does here. Be it bored, horny, drunk, vengeful or sweet she is Anti‘s strongest asset – and its most consistent.

What of the songs though? As the ultimate singles artist of the last decade it’s difficult not to root for a couple of tracks that will deeply impact the global consciousness and this is where Anti‘s weakness lies.

Some of the most robust and successful tracks here, which also happen to be the most sonically varied and genre-busting of her career, are cut frustratingly short.

‘James Joint’, ‘Higher’ and the Timbaland-produced ‘Yeah, I Said It’ are all riveting and are all barely two minutes long. None have the fleeting structure of an interlude track.

On a 13-track album these serve as slivers of brilliance that are cruelly compromised to make way for longer and less engaging songs. But Anti is still a very solid statement of Rhianna’s refusal to play it safe and, at this moment in time, not give a fuck about the potential consequences.

Although it sometimes feels like a stepping stone to a more fulfilling direction, Rihanna has made her first album which refuses to let you switch off for fear of missing out.

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