why rihanna's 'anti' was the strange, sad record we needed in 2016
Though Rihanna’s eighth album arrived late by pop music standards (and to mixed reviews), it came just in time to soundtrack the dejected atmosphere of a strenuous year.
photography paolo roversi
A little over midway through her album ANTI, Rihanna makes a sudden detour toward the psychedelic: she covers all sprawling six minutes of Tame Impala's Currents deep cut, "New Person, Same Old Mistakes," with not a single change in production. Of all the questions ANTI's disjointed rollout had raised, none felt quite as baffling as this. Rihanna had been teasing this record for three years... why were we getting Kevin Parker karaoke?
This was the common consensus in the wake of ANTI's sudden drop — confusion and deflated expectation. Since her formal debut in 2005, Rihanna albums have popped out on an almost annual basis, each of them spawning at least one number-one single since 2007's Good Girl Gone Bad. Though the velocity at which her career has moved has kept her at the forefront of pop culture, it's also worked against her — the sheer abundance of her music has turned it into more of a commodity than any sort of cohesive body of work.
So when Rihanna disappeared from the radio following her seventh album, 2012's Unapologetic, all signs pointed towards something huge for #R8. In early 2015 she enlisted Kanye West and Paul McCartney for her "rootsy" comeback single, "FourFiveSeconds." Next, the boisterous trap chant, "Bitch Better Have My Money," followed by the truck stop patriotism of "American Oxygen." None of the songs charted quite as high as typical Rihanna singles, and they were subsequently shelved.
Perhaps all of the false alarms had made listeners cynical, or maybe the cryptic Samsung-branded ad campaign had pre-denied it a sense of authenticity. But when ANTI finally and abruptly leaked on January 28, it felt vaguely unofficial, unfinished even. Many of the album's best tracks were two-minute interludes, its longest was a six minute cover, and save for "Work," not a single track sounded immediately ready for the radio. Rihanna even gave the album away at first, further warping its value — why was this high-budget pop record being treated like a mixtape? And furthermore, with an album title as foreboding as ANTI, what was Rihanna actually against?
A week later, Beyoncé dropped her colossal "Formation," effectively shifting all conversation away from Rihanna's confusing statement. But in the weeks following, "Work" steadily crept its way up the Billboard charts, cinching the top spot for nine weeks. In an unexpected twist of fate, as the year draws to a close, ANTI is topping many of the "best of 2016" lists published by the very media outlets that initially criticized it. "The record I have been the most wrong about after one listen is ANTI," wrote Larry Fitzmaurice of Vice on Twitter, "I thought it was bad after one listen. I have listened to it 600 times since."
At surface level, ANTI had seemed to lack a certain expected structure, and yet its intent only continues to clarify. The narrative of ANTI is a profound one, and like the braille emblazoned on its sleeve, it takes time to be deciphered. Rihanna kicks things off with "Consideration," a schoolyard romp that draws from Ms. Lauryn Hill at her spunkiest. "Please give my reflection a break from the pain it's feeling now," she spouts. Rihanna, for all of her aesthetic reinventions, has been fetishized as our badass stoner friend who maintains a flawless appearance through emotional turmoil. One of the most brilliant photographs from Paolo Roversi's shoot for the record shows Rihanna nonchalantly texting as a bevy of hands install platinum blonde extensions into her natural hair — it feels intrusive, reflective of a market that insists on the flashy construction of the artists who keep our radios pumping. The physical album itself features no photographs of Rihanna, as if to insist that we listen to her gospel as an entity separate from her image.
So how does she cope with the expectations, both internal and external? By getting sky-high on the silky James Fauntleroy interlude, "James Joint." Its placement should not be overlooked: the unassuming track is both her respite from the sobering politics of "Consideration" and also the bloodshot lens through which the listener should approach the remainder of ANTI. Whatever Rihanna is about to say will be steeped in a heavy cloud of marijuana, a stoned stream of consciousness from a night alone with our most fawned-over songstress. Her high starts at its highest, with the sticky, galvanic power ballad "Kiss It Better." In a clear nod to The Purple One, Fenty writhes atop deep, churning synths and an earworm riff courtesy of Nuno Bettencourt. Though her brand has always hinged on a certain strain of defiance, Rihanna has never yet sounded so assertive as when she cries, "Man, fuck your pride."
From there, her anger escalates. She flexes her Barbadian patois on the requisite dancehall single, "Work." The track simultaneously reclaims an island sound that has been heavily appropriated on the radio in 2016 while also shutting down Drake's exhausted sad boy trope with a suave "me nuh cyar if him hurt hurt hurt hurt hurtin'." After putting in such work, she ponders a total emotional vacancy over the whip-cracking "Desperado." Rihanna's frustration reaches a boiling point on the disjointed "Woo," and she seethes about what her value means — both to her lover and her audience — over DJ Mustard's icy production on "Needed Me." As if to prove something to her despondent significant other, "Yeah, I Said It" is a booty call to some anonymous third party. It satisfies, but its brand of sexiness feels defeated. With "Same Ol' Mistakes," she lights another joint, flips on her favorite Tame Impala record and insists that if we're going to internalize her music as our own, she can do the same — in the context of ANTI, the track sparkles with finely tuned delusion. "I know that you think it's fake," she purrs, "maybe fake's what I like."
ANTI ends with a trio of classic soul records, each coated in deep sadness. In "Love on the Brain," she gets "beat black and blue" to be the object of her lover's affection. "Higher" is perhaps the most accurate encapsulation of desperation this side of the millennium, a totally wrenching plea for the one person that drugs can't satiate. By "Close to You," it's evident that ANTI will be void of any sort of happy ending. The record is all the more humanizing because of it. At a time when listeners insist on instant gratification, lavish conceptual visual treatments and underlying political messages in their pop music, Rihanna gave us nothing of the sort. Instead, she gifted us something much more valuable: an aching outline of the public persona we've helped to construct, as well as the shadows it has produced. ANTI, for all of its initial shortcomings, endures as a stunning encapsulation of how it sounded to be sad in 2016.
Text Salvatore Maicki
Photography Paolo Roversi [i-D The Music Issue]