We're all already seemingly familiar with the story of ANTI — the stories of imminent releases and subsequent delays that flooded our timelines for over a year. Yet those were only stories that managed to squeeze their way out because we were hungry for them. Since 2005, the Rihanna machine cranked out an album every calendar year. Three years went by and so did three lead singles ("FourFiveSeconds," "B***h Better Have My Money" and "American Oxygen"). Naturally, fans went stir crazy, even a songwriter on the project managed to go off the deep end. Though, this is a piece of news that many have chosen to ignore or have forgotten completely, Rihanna left Def Jam in 2014. ANTI is her first album for the Roc Nation label. Did we really not see an album like this coming?
For starters (and this isn't a bad thing), the smash hit singles that Rihanna is accustomed to releasing — you know, the kind that slaps Top 40 over the head — are totally absent from ANTI. The album style manages to keep its Rihanna-ness thanks in large part to Kuk Harrell, who's been vocally producing Rihanna since her 2010 album, Loud. Rihanna-album alumni that made the final version of ANTI were Timbaland, The-Dream, No-ID, Hit-Boy, James Fauntleroy and Brian Kennedy. Absent are Dr. Luke, StarGate, Ester Dean, Benny Blanco and Mike Will Made-It; all hit makers that over the years have crafted some of RiRi's best singles. With a title like ANTI, we can only assume it was a deliberate move.
ANTI what exactly? For a recording artist like Rihanna whose entire calling card relied heavily on the single systems, we can already note that (on some level) she wants to shed that skin. For instance, ANTI kicks off with "Consideration" (with a brilliant feature by SZA) and it's less than subtle: "I got to do things my own way, darling / Will you ever let me? Will you ever respect me? No / Do things my own way, darling / You should just let me / Why you will never let me grow?" Who she's referring to is unclear, but considering she spent a good eight years with a label that constructed her to be a hit singer and had fans up her rectum for three years asking her where her latest project was, we can assume.
You can divide ANTI into four sections: its soft intro, a trap-inspired Travi$ Scott reprise, the stoner's section and the vocal-focused ending. With "Consideration," "James Joint," "Kiss It Better" and "Work," we get the easy stuff first — radio friendly tracks coupled with Rihanna's love for joints and love. For those looking for the former radio-friendly RiRi, this is as close as it's going to get.
"Desperado," a groove-heavy ode to Rihanna's badassery and propensity for men, launches the sonically dark portion of ANTI. "BBHMM" set this whole section up and Travi$'s influence is more than notable. The Weeknd co-penned "Woo," which doesn't credit Travi$ as a feature, contains his distorted vocals on the chorus that's covered in industrial synths. The DJ Mustard assisted "Needed Me" gives us the Rihanna we've come to know and love — the one who jumps on social media to clap back: "But baby, don't get it twisted / You was just another n***a on the hit list / Tryna fix your inner issues with a bad b***h / Didn't they tell you that I was a savage / F**k your white horse and a carriage / Bet you never could imagine / Never told you you could have it."
Things mellow out during the stoner section, which interestingly enough has no songs inspired by Rihanna's 420 fanaticism. With help from Timbaland, the R&B smothered "Yeah, I Said It" clocks in under two and a half minutes with lyrics reminiscent to "Birthday Cake" but, you know, without the innuendo. "Same Ol' Mistakes" finds Rihanna covering an Australian band's song verbatim, a first for the singer. The cover was also co-signed by the original songwriter and producer, Kevin Parker, who is also credited for producing this version. It marks the only song which Rihanna doesn't receive credit for co-writing on ANTI. "Never Ending" finds Roc Nation's songwriter Chad Sabo interpolating elements of Dido's "Thank You," which Eminem borrowed for his 2000 hit "Stan." The emotionally penned track finds Rihanna demurely in her feels just as she was did on Unapologetic's “Stay.”
The last three songs on ANTI are absolute gems that find Rihanna accentuating her best quality: her voice. "Love on the Brain" is produced by another Roc Nation producer, Fred Ball. The sparse, early '60s doo-wop production is reminiscent of the kind that began to show its face ten years ago in English artists' work, like that of Amy Winehouse and Duffy. "Higher" is a violin-soaked anthem where sizzurp, whiskey and a booty call live together as one brilliantly. Every bar owner across the land needs to make this the official "closing time" anthem. "Close to You" closes out the album and is sweet as hell basking in a simple piano as Rihanna sings, "No, you don't need my protection / But I'm in love, can't blame me for checking / I look in your direction, hoping that the message goes somewhere close to you."
ANTI was made to grow on you and, among Rihanna's discography, it's her most subtle work. Though, there's something about the album that makes it clear that she wasn't quite finished finding what she exactly wanted on it. Her three singles from last year now serve less as a representation and more like an "on the road to ANTI." Still, ANTI was released, whether because she had to show face after talking about it for so long or because she had a tour coming up. Both are actually solid reasons for an album release because here's the thing: Rihanna has earned the right to make an album like this, one that expands a three-minute radio formula and bought her time to figure out what kind of artist she is.
She might have figured out that she is and always has been a massive world entertainer that can't ever be pegged into one genre. It's her gift and her curse. Though, whether it's a curse is totally up for debate. We're already eight albums deep and eleven years in. In the end, that's bigger than thirteen No. 1 singles.
(Photo: Westbury Road, Roc Nation)