2015 proved to be a shaky year in the Rihanna promotional vehicle, at least musically. While the Bajan artist was busy inking deals with brands like Puma and her own cosmetics venture Fenty Beauty, her music was arguably suffering. Prior to then, Rihanna was averaging an album a year until 2012 when her career hit its financial pinnacle, as Forbes began clocking her coins, which averaged in the fifty millions. But that year also marked a turning point for Rihanna, the brand. Once 2012’s Unapologetic hit the ground, the “I-don’t-give-a-fuckness” factor of RiRi was at an all time high, punctuated with Instagram photos that substantiated her sentiment. Charities, sponsorships (hello, MAC and Vita Coco), spot performances. Rihanna’s celebrity was eclipsing her creative output—so much so that three years passed and nothing was bestowed upon the Navy.
Then 2015 rolled around, armed with what felt like a brand new day for Ms. Fenty. “FourFiveSeconds” happened, where Rihanna was flanked by Kanye West and Paul McCartney in what felt like a stripped down version of her. She was clearly on the precipice of evolution. Then the quasi-anthemic “Bitch Better Have My Money” was the presumed killer first single, but it was met with a partially dismal response, given her previous direction, merely “4-5 seconds” ago. Even the intense video co-directed by Rihanna couldn’t save critics from questioning where she was going with all of this. “American Oxygen” followed, closer to the direction of the first release, though missing the mark in its global appeal. So it left Rihanna searching for love (from her label) in a hopeless place. A lot of speculations emerged, questioning Rihanna’s next moves, as the close of 2015 presented the eighth album title of ANTI, cover art, a tour announcement, and not a single song. By the start of 2016, Drake came to save the day, assisting his former paramour on her actual first single off ANTI, the ramped up “Work.” Then ANTI leaked, and simultaneously released. Perhaps it was unfinished, but it had to escape once and for all. And that’s the sentiment woven throughout the project. For the first time in what feels like forever, Rihanna doesn’t sound altogether confident. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Positively speaking, ANTI presents a version of Rihanna she’s been tinkering with for quite some time. With the exception of “Work” (which really sounds like a safer re-hashed version of “Rude Boy”), production is slick and sharp. The singer enlisted hitmakers like DJ Mustard, No I.D., and Timbaland, but leaned heavily on Kuk Harrell, who ushered in some hits for Rihanna on the production and songwriting tip, including “Only Girl In The World” and her reintroduction “Umbrella.” Vocally, Rihanna is as finely tuned as ever, save for the emotional tidal wave “Higher,” where she’s straining to get her voice out as fast as her feelings.
The album opener “Consideration,” is the greatest womanifesto, where she and SZA volley verses about questioning who really cares when it comes to saving souls. It’s more a testament to Rihanna’s creative struggles than decoding any romantic undertones. Clearly she has a whole new vision for her career, but label politics and numbers will always set up landmines. In fact, the album’s title is a low-key testament to her discontent. Other songs like “Kiss It Better” and “Love On the Brain” traipse into ill-fated love territory. “Woo” features a heavy-handed contribution from Travi$ Scott (and a writing credit from The Weeknd), sounding more like her man’s track than her own. ANTI is dark and brooding, and despite Rihanna’s desire to pepper in edgier sounding cuts, the paranoia in “Desperado” and the malaise of “James Joint” seep through. She can recline and hide under soundbeds, but her words never lie. As a co-writer on every track save for “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” it’s clear that Rihanna wanted to convey a message. But is that message a cry for help?
In many ways, ANTI is a step in the right direction for Rihanna, creatively. The album sounds like her Instagram account, which is probably the purest representation of her once you erase the Samsung ads. She’s weathered a myriad of storms, both publicly and privately and wants to now sit at the table of creative geniuses like Kanye West minus the meltdowns. And she’s deserving of all that praise, but this album isn’t the most effective archetype for that kind of pivot. The sound is nowhere nearly as innovative as it could have been. This is Rihanna, and we all know she knows how to push envelopes, but this barely made it to the post office. Had she not been RIHANNA in big capital letters, this thin experimentation wouldn’t be an issue. However, she is RIHANNA in those big capital letters, so she still has the luxury of being Number One even with a Number Six product. Her objectives are clearly laid out now, though, so whatever happens next may very well be the real message she was trying to convey. We’ll all be here waiting until then.