I’m not that into dance-pop, so for all intents and purposes, I don’t consider myself a Rihanna fan. To be fair, I’m nonadjacent to Rihanna’s target demographic and nonchalant about her resident genre; growing up I was more into DMX than Brittany Spears and preferred my own cassette/cd mixes over anything playing on top 40 radio.
When I did venture outside of rap, I stayed close to the periphery where “conscious” artists like Badu, Lauryn and groups like Fugees matured the culture. As 1999 Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) would say, I’m black on both sides, so safe, fluffy, and soft music never appealed to me. Of course, landscapes have changed and my own palate has evolved since the 13 years ago Rihanna first come pon de scene (almost half of our lives, she’s turning 28 and I’m….close). But, still, over the years Rihanna’s sound has always remained somewhat dull to me. Her personal brand is fun and intriguing, but her music was never all that interesting.
Last week, a link to a free download of Rihanna’s eighth studio album, ANTi (Roc Nation), moseyed down my timeline. Back in October, pictures of the album artwork (image by Roy Nachum and poetry by Chloe Mitchell) set the internet abuzz with rumors of a full release. By someone’s error, ANTi leaked before its intended date and, with a flick of the wrist, I had my first ever Rihanna album queued up and ready to play. After spending some time listening to it, there’s something I must confess:
I don’t see too much wrong. Actually, I enjoyed ANTi and I’m super satisfied with the high points in it. The album is explorative and packed with range and vocal nuance. The production is slick and the album length is super compact (13 tracks, each averaging just over 3 minutes). Top to bottom it felt like Rihanna stretched herself to deliver a compilation that reflects her current state of mind and ambition. I’ve been listening to a lot of KING lately (their long awaited debut album, We Are KING, also dropped last week) and was pleased to discover how ANTi paired sounds and richness with their genius suite. #YayRih #NewYearNewRih #OrNah
I must also confess, I hesitate to fully endorse Rihanna’s music because of the heavy handed swagger jacking it takes to create it. Rihanna’s musical style sounds nearly indistinguishable from other artists- savants- and in a mocking way (notably imitated are: M.I.A., Kelis, Patwa, FKA twigs, Teyana Taylor (and Aaliyah for that matter), Fefe Dobson, David LaChapelle, Florence + The Machine, and more). Despite Rihanna’s celebrity, her musical identity is yet to be unveiled or validated which, ironically, impeaches her acclaim. I digress.
The first one-third of ANTi, is club/radio ready with a brilliant appearance on “Consideration” by major girl-crush and T.D.E darling, Sza. YMCMB mascot and 6-bae, Drake, delivers a gimmie verse (with a super simp subliminal at Meek Mill) on their designated single, “Work.” On later tracks like “Love On The Brain” Rihanna bellows out about love and heartbreak, romance and loneliness. On “Kiss It Better” she is literally shouting about sex, power and letting go.
Rihanna is agitated tantric, gnawing, clawing, and caressing her way through this album in surprising ways. Her voice control is chaotic and willful as it painfully cracks on tracks like “Higher,” and then linear and artificial on hypnotic songs like “Same Ol Mistakes.” There’s a smart use of autotune on select songs and when Rihanna isn’t flexing her hard fought singing chops she’s letting the lyrics singe through. On each of the 13 tracks there’s a clear message to the pop music cache, Rihanna’s handlers, choosy lovers, and listeners that she grown and couldn’t care less about our constrictions.
On the drippy and super catchy intro track, “Consideration,” Rihanna and Sza move in tandem setting up harmonies and runs for Rihanna to spin off of and score easy vocal points. Sza could’ve easily handled this track on her own considering what amazing things we’ve heard on her solo work, but this collab nails it and boldly captures maximum #blackgirlmagic. The chorus goes, “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?” and is the essence of ANTI’s messaging to just let go.
The second, third and fourth tracks, “James Joint,” “Kiss It Better” and “Work” continue to strum her message of anti-inhibition. Rihanna’s dope Bajan flavor on minimally produced twerk song, “Work,” uses lyrics so stylized they’re almost inaudible. On the electric and rebellious sounding “Kiss It Better” Rihanna’s prowess commands her lover to succumb to her with abandon; when he hesitates she slays him with the line, “man, fuck your pride!” Its about as theatrical a love scene as Prince would act/direct and I’m totally here for it *body rolls*. These themes and shifting production styles set up the rest of the album to be unpredictable. Rihanna isn’t whipping out the tough vocals just yet (wait for it) but she isn’t afraid to lull us with her mezzo-soprano notes while the lyrics and instrumentals vibe out. Rih demonstrates her daring willingness on these tracks to try everything (seriously) which, I guess, fits her self proclaimed title as the anti-damsel and anti-good girl of the game.
On “James Joint” Rihanna’s voice is pleasantly light but (here we go) identical to Frank Ocean’s brand of weed lullaby, patented on albums like Nostalgia Ultra and Channel Orange. The lyrics coo, “I’d rather be smoking weed whenever we breathe, anytime you kiss me, don’t say that you miss me. Just come get me……I’d rather be breaking things ‘cuz we cant see, we’re too busy kissing, just making scenes, here come the police, they know ’bout your history: how you live and love like fuck rules….” Despite the biting, this song is incredibly tender and exactly how I want to feel when high on love. Blazing the trails of love. On a cloud of love. You get the point.
In the middle one-third of ANTi, Rihanna continues to play her hand at different styles starting with a boring, pseudo-western, antiquated track called, “Desperado.” This song is super lackluster and shows no effort or ingenuity. ANTi is stacked with more enjoyable songs so, moving on. The next track “Woo” featuring Travis Scott (Rihanna’s alleged boo), has got the juice. Its that messy, cloudy, clunky, auto-tuney, Kanye/Cudi sound that we loved so much on MBDTF and Yeezus. Just like all of these mentors, Rih enjoys screaming over the track and making only half true statements like, “I bet she could never make you cry, cuz the scars on your heart are still mine….I don’t even really love ya, I don’t even really care bout you no more.”
“Needed Me,” is one strictly for the ladies. There’s a strong whiff of Drake tease on the choice of instrumental, lyrics, synths, and fade-aways. But Rihanna whips the song into form especially on the refrain, “you was just another nigga on the hit list, tryna fix ya inner issues with a bad bitch. Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage? Fuck your white horse and a carriage.” The next track, “Yeah I Said It” is brilliant but sounds like it was conceptualized during a listening session of Schoolboy Q’s 2014 mega burner “Studio”. Here, Rihanna has Q’s vibrato, lazy tempos, and stacatto/cadence. But I love the way this track rides out and so does everyone else. These lyrics stay scrolling down my social media feeds.
The last third of the album is much more lyrical and ballad-like beginning with blissful sounding “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” a cover of the similarly titled masterpiece by Australian band, Tame Impala. It’s over 6 mins long (the longest on the album) and masters all at once this psychedelic, smooth, heady and romantic quality. The song’s narrative of dueling self destruction versus self emancipation are imperative to ANTi’s core ethos and thus no surprise why Rihanna saw urgency, symmetry and utility in flipping the original. Rihanna didn’t tamper with the song at all in any identifiable way, for better or worse. But the lyrics are existential no matter who sings them: “I can just hear them now, ‘how can you let us down?’ But they don’t know what I found, or see it from this way around. Feeling it overtake all that I used to hate….Two sides of me cant agree. When I breath in too deep. Going with what I always longed for.”
Rihanna antes up on these next three tracks, “Never Ending,” “Love On The Brain,” and “Higher,” with full force vocals at hard to reach octaves. On “Never Ending” Rihanna reaches back into the country music bag this time pulling out a stripped down ballad sung over guitar, a drumskin tambourine, and maracas (I think). This song is beyond my musical disposition
because I’m a recovering thug but its still a contender for radio, in so far as, it’s easy to sing along to and sell across markets. Ok, ya’ll, every mechanism of “Love On The Brain” offends my sensibilities. It just smacks of Joss Stone right on down to the fraudulent sounding inflections Rihanna makes. The song has a sweet message about restorative love, and I’m sure the song would’ve been tolerable if a powerhouse like Beyonce sang it (I’m imagining “Love On Top”), but I already went there on Rihanna’s faux-identity. Next.
The most unique track on the album is by far “Higher.” Rihanna scratches and shreds her way through the entire song, undoubtedly, as an ode to Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, and/or Etta James. I don’t hate the quality of Rihanna’s voice on this track and the screaming actually suits her though only as a device to sound like someone else. On “Close To You” Rihanna leans on a hybrid of Barbados-Tennessee twang to bring this fantasy ride to gentle stop. I don’t love the song but I’m sure she’ll do a country duet at the Grammy’s with Taylor Swift (or Dido), soon.
ANTi’s themes of indulgence and self-permission are consistent with Rihanna’s “agitator” persona, but unhinged by a lack of musical cohesiveness that would’ve amplified the message. I can’t deny that most tracks on the album sound good. But all the combined styles and voices make the album sound like (damn good) karaoke. If experimentation is a process that leads to self discovery, then Rihanna is one iteration closer to finding a sound that is just, herself.
P.s. I haven’t heard “Good Night Gotham,” “Pose,” or “Sex With Me” off of the deluxe version. Have you listened to ANTi? Share some of your thoughts, below.
(photo cred: Christopher Polk—Pok Imaging Digitial Photography/Getty)
(photo source: Mirror)