rihanna's anti is the ultimate anti artist album
Turning Rebellion Into Money, Rihanna Style.
In the end, the outcome was obvious, as outcomes tend to be. Not since the climax of Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Crystal Skull has popular culture endured a MacGuffin so inescapably anti-climactic as the eventual emergence of Rihanna's eighth record, ANTi. She's released an uncommercial mood piece on which the probable best song is a Tame Impala cover. This after the most dramatic pre-release campaign in recent memory. The most regularly-occurring word in the avalanche of think pieces these last 24 hours has been 'shambolic'. But make no mistake: however stoned she might come across in interviews, Robyn Rihanna Fenty is smart.
What she has definitely succeeded in doing is making a record where the story around its release overshadows whatever's on the record itself. Even right now, your correspondent here is trapped in a morbid mobius strip of trying to make an ambivalent case for #RealMusic and rail against think pieces through the medium of trying to argue for #RealMusic via the medium of think piece about Rihanna. There was never going to any hope. Rihanna knows this.
What's a little bit of a shame is just that, while her last release, 2012's Unapologetic was a dud that really did require the kidnapping of 150 journalists on an aeroplane for a week and the force-feeding them of expensive brandy to garner attention - ANTi is not. What it is is a record that makes sense on its own terms. Last year's singles - FourFiveSeconds, Bitch Better Have My Money and American Oxygen all had strengths and weaknesses of their own. But in being all over the place, they were never going to belong on the same album. Another thing that Rihanna already knew. After a career playing cypher to the highest-paid producers in the whole entire music industry, at the ancient age of 27, she's decided she wants to be an 'album artist'. ANTi certainly achieves that - in having very few hits yet holding itself together as a 'thing' in its own right.
Rihanna couldn't give a crap about 'context' either, but the think piece format demands we go there. And the context is the very modern movement of Poptimism, something that originates from my dear friend Peter and his Popjustice website. Popjustice was initially both a vehicle for his exceptional verbal gags, and a campaigning tool to get the great songs of people like Steps taken seriously. But in the wake of the site's success, its footsoldiers grew militant. Battle lines were drawn, and the 30-year-old synthesiser became, to a generation of bloggers, inherently better than the 60-year-old electric guitar. Indie white guys became a common enemy, and the notion of the 'album artist' became a phrase that demanded inverted commas. As pop's most reliable cypher of the successful, Rihanna became one of life's lovely certainties. For seven years, her annual November release cycle became as regular as my daily 11am movements and #Rihannovember became a popular hashtag. After the fiasco that was Unapologetic, 2013's #Rihannovember never came, and a year passed, and then another, and then another. By November last year, R8 had overtaken the Crystal Skull as a frustrating MacGuffin. One unfortunate consequence of Poptimism is that it doesn't quite do away with the gender politics it sought to banish. For a similar long-awaited MacGuffin in pop, you have to go back as far as Guns N'Roses' Chinese Democracy. Axl Rose took 17 years to deliver that record. Rihanna, a woman, has taken three. The most commonly-accepted reason for ANTi's delay is that there was too much competition from Adele. Women pitted against other women - look how far we've come!
But this is where we are, and knowing all of that too, here is a woman who chooses to embrace the chaos. In recent years, Adele and Taylor have made hay playing professional side-eye at the modern biz in keeping their music off Spotify in the name of rights-of-the-artist-and-stuff. Rihanna just isn't about that life. So on the one hand she stubbornly restricts things to the ridiculous Tidal streaming service that she owns a stake in, minutes later deciding to give the thing away for free anyway. It's worth underlining how absolutely nobody is buying the claim that ANTi was 'accidentally' uploaded. This way, Tidal gets a shot in the arm to the tune of a million extra subscribers to tempt with a host more exclusives during our trial periods. Don't be surprised if you find yourself parting with your credit card details in order to hear the Kanye record a day before everyone else in a few weeks' time. Rihanna meanwhile could not give less of a fuck - she got her payday from Samsung a year ago.
But this does all leave us in a new hinterland of this brave new Wild West where advanced capitalism intersects with punk rock ethics. The rational conscious mind has long since gotten over worrying about product placement. We're all smart enough to zone out from subtle marketing mind games these days right; and who doesn't like a bit of free 'content'? The only problem is that this new order favours the already-successful. It's all very well to do a daring pay-what-you-like-experiment nine years ago if you're Radiohead and you already made your money out of the 90s CD goldrush. Less so for a new artist starting out. And despite being 27, in pop years, Rihanna is ancient. Is 2016 going to favour those with the same chutzpah of the young Barbadian who fought her way to prominence at a time when the music industry wasn't exactly in the rudest health anyway? Advanced capitalism doesn't ignore pop music as much as we'd like it to; and fortune favours the brave. Whatever else it might be, ANTi is brave. Unapologetic may have had all the bangers but was steeped in an air of disinterest. This record feels a bit like her own piece, however average history might judge it to be. Unapologetic had bangers, but all you really saw of *her* was her naked body on the cover. And after the exhausting process of thinking this out, the only thing I can say for certain about ANTi is that the slow-waltz one Love On The Brain is actually better than the Tame Impala cover, Same Ol' Mistake. And that it makes me wish I could still handle smoking weed. The only unfortunate news for Rihanna? She's consigned herself to the same dreadful fate of so many other 'album artists' who make a middling record: a considered verdict by a 30something white guy that her album is a seven-out-of-ten.