She doesn’t care, she feels like a brand new person — and why should we have expected anything different? The facts, the clues, the ANTI diaRy rooms and their keys all lead us to this point — Rihanna‘s eight studio album (the first to arrive after 2012’s Unapologetic, the longest musical gap in her recording history) is her most distinctly personal, formally ushering in a new Rihanna era to be defined by intimacy, autonomy and, above all else, growth.
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Also out this week is Sia‘s This Is Acting, an album composed of songs Furler wrote for other artists but were rejected, including two intended for RiRi. One of those is “Cheap Thrills,” a perfectly fine song that is exactly the type of song Rihanna would have recorded (and made a #1 hit) three years ago. Like Rihanna‘s biggest hits “We Found Love” and the Furler-penned “Diamonds,” the aim of “Cheap Thrills” is to make you dance — lines like “Baby I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight / I love cheap thrills” and “As long as I can feel the beat… As long as I keep dancing” are the meat of the dancehall number. “Cheap Thrills” is the type of song written for a different Rihanna album (it would fit nicely tucked into LOUD or Talk That Talk), and if it had appeared on ANTI it would have been an expected return to form. But ANTI is the album of a new Rihanna–or rather the same Rihanna we’ve always had but expressing for the first time a more honest version of her moods, her loves and her vision. In that regard, a song about dancing for the sake of dancing is exactly what ANTI intends to leave behind.
ANTI‘s thesis is clear: this is Rihanna‘s antithesis, a shedding of the teenage skin that gave us Music of the Sun and A Girl Like Me, an evolution from the princess of pop product of Good Girl Gone Bad, Rated R and LOUD and an evolution of the maturity we got glimpses of in Talk That Talk and Unapologetic. Consider the opening track, “Consideration” featuring TDE‘s First Lady SZA, where she comes “fluttering in from Neverland” to declare she’s ready to “do things [her] own way darling.” Neverland—the fantasyland home of children that don’t age. But Rihanna is no longer interested in stunting her growth; instead she wants to mature and evolve, a goal that requires grounding her songs in ideas more intimate than standing under an “Umbrella” and serving up “Birthday Cake.”
From there the album moves in and out of a series of love songs. “Kiss It Better” and “Work” follow nicely as the most commercial tracks—”Work” is the dancier of the two while I suspect “Kiss It Better” is album’s surest bet at a crossover hit – It’s spectacular. “Work” makes sense as the album’s first “official” single—the familiarity of guest star Drake grounds the track to where Rihanna has been before (her own “What’s My Name” and Drake‘s “Take Care” each preceding it), but the slow roll, island groove and mumble-slurs of the chorus show the flavor of her Caribbean roots with a confidence like never before.
It’s in these roots that ANTI finds its most distinct voice. Because past albums focused more on dance and pop production, each could find room for only one or two token island tracks (think Rated R‘s “Rude Boy” and “Te Amo,” LOUD‘s “Man Down” and “Raining Man,” Talk That Talk‘s “Watch n’ Learn” or Unapologetic‘s “No Love Allowed“), but ANTI keeps that mid-tempo, island mood rolling throughout. Though the productions themselves don’t always scream island, “Desperado,” “Woo,” “Needed Me” and “Yeah, I Said It” maintain the chilled, turn down attitude inherent in such a vibe. Lyrically these middle tracks continue the thread of love songs though now they’re laced with the tension of a relationship running its course—from the “You need me, there ain’t no leaving me behind” of “Desperado” to the “You was just another nigga on the hit list / Tryna fix your inner issues with a bad bitch” of “Needed Me.”
Though not an interlude, “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” a cover of Tame Impala‘s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” more or less serves as one, closing out the middle stretch of the album and preparing us for what’s to follow. Lyrically it’s amazing that the song not written for the album is the one that best describes the journey that Rihanna‘s on with ANTI. “Two sides of me can’t agree / When I breathe in too deep / Going with what I always longed for” hints at the separation of current Rihanna from the one she’s leaving behind. And the chorus’ refrain “Feel like a brand new person” harkens back to the sense of autonomy first asserted in “Consideration.”
The end result then of this autonomy and intimacy is displayed in the finale of the album, characterized by a dreaminess and the softer sides of Rihanna‘s voice. “Never Ending” arrives like the sort of lullaby you’d expect to hear strung for you on the guitar while huddled around a campfire on the beach. “And I can’t feel my body now / I’m separate from here and now” she sings, as if she’s mid-transcendence on her way to a new version of the Neverland she left in her past. “Love on the Brain” unspools like a class romance ballad, which together with the album’s final track “Close to You,” expands upon the discovery made when she released “Stay” that she can be vulnerable enough to let her voice be the focus of the song. But nestled in between “Love on the Brain” and “Close to You” is another curiously placed interlude, but placed here as the second to last track, “Higher” makes sense, relating back to the other weed-influenced interlude “James Joint,” as if the two are the beginning and ending pages binding this diary together.
It is decisions like this that show just how singular Rihanna‘s vision was for the album. Through all of the mess of the on-again-off-again release schedule, the half-assed effort of the Samsung key-holder room escape collab and the unfortunate Tidal-instigated last minute leak of the album, the end product clearly remains exactly what Rihanna intended it to be. While many may very well never consider ANTI to be Rihanna‘s best product, it is definitely her most focused and riskiest effort because for once—finally!—yeah, she said it.