Rihanna has not only mercifully suspended with the tease of releasing ANTI, her eighth studio album (that’s almost one album a year since her debut, Music of the Sun), but she’s also proven she’ll never be capable of disappointing us as badly as she did with 2009’s shoddily assembled Rated R.
After releasing the first single, “Work” featuring Drake, on that somewhat inane music streaming service, Tidal, ANTI came at us like a freight train. And, surprisingly, Rihanna didn’t cop out by relying on the already tried and true singles, “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “FourFiveSeconds,” as filler for the album. The slow, yet uptempo beat of the opener, “Consideration,” establishes a vulnerable side of Rihanna as she admits, “When I look outside my window I can’t get no peace of mind” and “Will you ever respect me? No.” Wishing for consideration from her significant other (though probably still referencing Chris Brown), Rihanna wishes for nothing more than the slightest consideration, knowing it won’t come.
Proving her continued fondness for interludes in the vein of “Birthday Cake,” the brevity of “James Joint” builds on the motif of her desire for a bloke with some gumption as she insists, “Don’t say that you miss me, just come and get me.”
The 80s slow jam feel of “Kiss It Better” offers a sound and vibe we’ve never really experienced from Rihanna, and fortifies the theme of intolerance for bullshit present throughout ANTI. Whereas in the past, Rihanna might have sung of the pain of a fight with a lover (see: “Rehab”), she instead shifts gears by declaring, “Fuck yo pride, just take it on back” and “What are you willing to do?”
Like the act itself, “Work” is a terrible song that finds Rihanna repeating the word over and over again the way a coked up Jamaican cleaning woman might. Drake adds very little in the way of salvation with lyrics like, “If you had a twin, I’d still choose you.”
“Desperado” should, alternately, be called “Co-Dependent Desperado” as Rihanna sings, “There ain’t nothin’ here for me anymore/But I don’t wanna be alone.” The grittiness of the beat, paired with Rihanna’s signature sultry voice, makes it one of the better songs on the album.
And then there’s “Woo.” If only it had been in existence back when the movie of the same name starring Jada Pinkett Smith came out. It would have made a great song to curate a soundtrack of prowling through the night like a bit of a dirty skank.
“Needed Me” is yet another instance of Rihanna railing against a defunct relationship, using the veneer of being a “savage” to mask her own pain over casting aside someone she once enjoyed by protesting, “I was good on my own, that’s the way it was.” She tries to add salt to his wound by saying, “Don’t get it twisted, you was just anotha nigga on the hit list…You needed me.” But it’s one of those cases where the lady doth protest too much.
The sensual side of Rihanna we know and love shines through at its finest on “Yeah, I Said It” as she mourns the bitch boy nature of some guy she might consider boning if only he wasn’t so afraid to “be rough.” It’s definitely the track Cosmo would pick for a list of songs one should put on during foreplay.
“Same Ol Mistakes” pays homage to Tame Impala as Rihanna unexpectedly chose their track, “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” to cover. Her interpretation is straightforwardly faithful, but brings a breath of fresh air to it.
Expressing the greatest level of emotional openness is “Never Ending,” in which Rihanna gives an honest account of the fear of falling in love again after the never ending saga of a previous failure. She laments, “I knew your face once, but now it’s unclear” and notes that in order to forget the attachment she once felt to her ex she must disassociate from herself, remarking, “I can’t feel my body now, I separate from here.” The words that hit the hardest, though, are: “Wishing I could hold on longer/It doesn’t have to feel so strange to be in love again.”
“Love on the Brain” offers the opposite sentiment of “Never Ending,” with lyrics like, “No matter what I do, I’m no good without you.” Echoing the sound of soulful 60s Motown artists like Al Green (in fact, it sounds a lot like “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart”) and Otis Redding, Rihanna stretches the limits of her vocals as she sings, “Don’t you stop loving me, don’t quit loving me,” almost as though inadvertently addressing her fans.
Her earnestness reaches a crescendo on “Higher,” the second to last track on the standard version of the album. Like “Love on the Brain,” it possesses an old school sonic flavor and reveals Rihanna at her rawest on ANTI as she belts, “You take me higher than I’ve ever been”–which, in her case, is always a double entendre as she adds, “Let’s smoke a J/I wanna go back to the old way.”
“Close To You” puts a cap on the somewhat schizophrenic emotions Rihanna exhibits throughout ANTI, and it’s a conclusion that favors the trait of neediness. Her devotion to the subject of the song finds her feeling okay with the disparity between their love for one another as she paints the picture, “Nothing but a tear, that’s all for breakfast/Watching you pretend you’re unaffected/You’re pulling our connections/Expecting me to let you go, but I won’t.”
The extended incarnation of the record takes on a different direction with “Goodnight Gotham,” a song that commences the series of three bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, and offers arguably the simplest lyrics Rihanna (or rather, Florence + the Machine) has ever come up with as she repeats, “Night, night/Only if for a night, for a night.”
Perhaps wanting to be a modern update to “Vogue” (which Rihanna already made the mistake of covering), “Pose” urges, “Wanna see you, work it, oh my god, pose bitch/And the thing is that I know you know/Pose, bitch, and you bouncing like I know you know/Bitch, I know you know/Bitch, I know you know.” It’s not the best, much like the succeeding and final song, “Sex With Me,” finding Rihanna at her most conceitedly repugnant while asserting, “We’re not making love, tryna get nasty/Grab up your drugs, that make me happy/Sex with me is amazing, with her it’ll feel alright/The sex doesn’t get any better, make it long, let it be all night/I know, I know, I make it hard to let go.” And she almost did until that song.
Though ANTI is a worthy addition to Rihanna’s discography, it still lacks the heart and conviction of her crowning achievement, 2011’s Talk That Talk, which featured arguably her best song to date, “We Found Love,” and the accompanying greatness of its video in which the summation of love and its inevitable crash and burn is summed up by the intro monologue: “It’s like you’re screaming, and no one can hear. You almost feel ashamed that someone could be that important; that without them, you feel like nothing. No one will ever understand how much it hurts. You feel hopeless; like nothing can save you. And when it’s over and it’s gone, you almost wish that you could have all that bad stuff back so that you could have the good.”
This is kind of how one feels about having to accept ANTI as the new norm for Rihanna. Though, to be fair, the liner notes of the album feature a poem called “If They Let Us” with a similar effect as the “We Found Love” video monologue, written in Braille by Chloe Mitchell. It is the manifesto of the ANTI album and the consistent feelings of being misunderstood that most artists must endure:
“I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood.
It is simply because what I want to say,
what I need to say, won’t be heard.
Heard in a way I so rightfully deserve.
What I choose to say is of so much substance
That people just won’t understand the depth of my message.
So my voice is not my weakness,
It is the opposite of what others are afraid of.
My voice is my suit and armor,
My shield, and all that I am.
I will comfortably breathe in it, until I find the moment to be silent.
I live loudly in my mind, so many hours of the day.
The world is pin drop sound compared to the boom
That thumps and bumps against the walls of my cranium.
I live it and love it and despise it and I am entrapped in it.
So being misunderstood, I am not offended by the gesture, but honored.
If they let us…”