The first thing you should know about Anti is that Rihanna cares deeply about your opinion of it. Given the album’s patent lack of bangers, the way it’s been thrust out into the world as a Tidal exclusive and the 'Unapologetic' singer’s own confrontational public demeanour, it’s easy enough to think otherwise. Still, you’d be wrong.
Anti is a classic example of what I’ll call the ‘popstar pivot’, like when Madonna made Erotica or Robyn Thicke dedicated an album of groaning ballads to his soon to be ex-wife. In business, a company will pivot because their central idea isn’t selling. In pop, a pivot often occurs because the performer is too successful. They’ve become well known for selling songs according to a narrowly defined image, but that routine isn’t sustainable.
Between 2005 and 2012 Rihanna released seven albums at a rate of one every 12 months, barring the year she was domestically assaulted by an odious degenerate. During that time Robyn Fenty’s identity as a popstar was clear: she was the one with all the hits. Six UK Number 1 singles and 20 more that charted inside the Top 20, to be precise. So what happens when you don’t want to play the crowdpleaser anymore?
Anti is the answer and it’s a messy one. More of a PR manoeuvre than a coherent record, it throws up a crooked middle finger to the typical hallmarks of a Rihanna album. For starters, none of the three singles she released last year are on it. That’s no great loss though. Put a donk on ‘FourFiveSeconds’ and it’s basically ‘Cotton Eye Joe’, while ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ works better as a hashtag than it does a song.
What’s more striking is that these tracks haven’t been replaced by catchy new offerings from big name writers and producers like Stargate (‘Rude Boy’), Sia (‘Diamonds’) or Calvin Harris (‘We Found Love’). There’s a Drake feature on the so-so dancehall-inspired ‘Work’, but that’s about it in terms of people whose creations are on regular rotation at Capital FM. The obvious point of reference for Anti is Beyoncé’s self-titled album from 2013, but that’s a very different record. It was announced as a bolt from the blue, had a clear, intimate narrative and a wealth of hummable moments.
In contrast, Anti’s release had been teased for over a year before its grand arrival last week with Rihanna appearing as the cover star for i-D, Vanity Fair, NME, Harper’s Bazaar, Fader and several more magazine covers. We all knew this LP was coming and that a show at Wembley Stadium had been booked in support of it. The only real ‘surprise’ about Rihanna’s eighth album is just how challenging it is, not to listen to but to enjoy.
Sonically, Anti is defiantly low key with very little to quicken the pulse. ‘James Joint’ is symbolic of a record that seems built to blaze along to, while pretty much all of the album, from the creaking ‘Woo’ to the humdrum ‘Never Ending’, feels like an indulgence. Put it this way, when was the last time you caught Katy Perry doing a straight-laced cover of Tame Impala’s ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’?
Of course you never have, and that’s the point of Anti. Rihanna’s torn up her AAA pop club membership card in a pointedly public manner. The results aren’t wholly lacklustre either. ‘Kiss It Better’ is the best slow jam Aerosmith never put their name to, while ‘Higher’s drunken bawling proves a caustic counterpoint to ‘Hotline Bling’. Neither of these songs are going to sit atop a future Greatest Hits tracklisting, but they do at least stand up as a proof of concept.
The pivot works, it’s just in need of some fine-tuning. In the meantime, you’re now very much aware that the ‘old Rihanna’ is no more. Shame, I miss her already.
5Robert Leedham's Score