On Wednesday night the protracted year-long launch campaign for Rihanna’s eighth album ANTI came to a close not with a deluge but with a trickle: the evening after the worldwide release of ANTI's new lead single “Work,” Tidal, the music streaming service her Roc Nation label head Jay Z partnered with last year, made the album’s buy page live just long enough for a grip of fans to grab it and sneak it out onto the internet. Not long after, the Tidal website offered up a million free downloads of the full album in collusion with smartphone giant Samsung, with whom the singer teamed up for a quixotic mobile game vision quest last fall, two years after Jay’s unprecedented Samsung sponsored launch of Magna Carta Holy Grail. Was the leak an intentional gesture or a flubbed dismount to close out an already rocky rollout? It doesn’t matter. The album is finally out.
In retrospect, the tangle of wildly divergent pre-album singles that presaged the ANTI drop feels less like an artist throwing darts to see what stuck and more the work of one trying to escape the burdensome chains of expectations. Rihanna is well known as a singles artist who devastates in small doses but sometimes struggles to sustain the highs of her chart toppers across the stretch of a full album, though 2012’s Unapologetic stands out as a strong collection of songs with a firm guiding voice. The system shock of last winter’s campfire country jaunt “FourFiveSeconds,” followed by the industrial trap heft of “Bitch Better Have My Money” and the boldly political message song “American Oxygen” proved that Rihanna refuses to be pinned down as much as they were said to have shown that she didn’t know where she was headed. Listening to ANTI in full, it’s apparent she’s been trying to skirt around her penchant for dance-pop bangers to ease us into a different vision of what she’s capable of.
“I gotta do things my own way, darling,” Rihanna sings in the chorus of ANTI opener “Consideration” possibly in rebuke to a nagging lover, but it’s hard not to see it as sated acceptance of the singer’s free spirited public and media persona. She’s a singular force in pop’s mainstream: Beyonce is powerful and sincere but also enamored of the grounding attachment of family, while on the other end of the spectrum, Katy Perry coats her messages in sugar puff reverie, and Gaga has moved from PVC-and-chicken-wire showmanship to a fibery diet of standards and cabaret, one would imagine in search of the elusive EGOT. Rihanna, by comparison, is both uncompromising and unpredictable, and ANTI, as a body of sounds as well as lyrics, bears this out in a seemingly scattershot array of moods and messages. The album’s title is no accident; ANTI is a rejection of the notion Rihanna needs to ever be any one thing to anyone, fan, friend, or flame.
There are no breathless EDM burners here; the only roundabout acknowledgements of that wing of Rihanna’s discography arrive in the throbbing bass of “Needed Me” and in the Drake collaboration “Work,” a dancehall breeze accented with light house-inspired synth blips from Toronto producers Boi-1da and Sevn Thomas. Elsewhere Rihanna eagerly thumbs through disparate styles: “Consideration” tries out lumbering Portishead trip-hop, while “Kiss It Better” and “Desperado” dally with moody rock vibes. The closing stretch of the album rattles off a pure R&B Timbaland track (“Yeah, I Said It”), a faithful Currents era Tame Impala cover (“Same Ol’ Mistakes”), a Dido-referencing acoustic guitar and fanned drumstick romp (“Never Ending”) and three powerhouse soul scorchers. This is where ANTI really opens up. Rihanna wears emotion proudly on “Love on the Brain” and “Higher,” selling threadbare longing by flexing the upper end of her register, shredding on the latter cut like we've never heard before.
The influence of Travis Scott, advertised by “Kiss It Better” collaborator Glass John in a puzzling Twitter rant about the Kanye herald trying to coerce Rihanna into making a trap album, is greatly exaggerated. Scott aids the brash, jilted “Woo,” but his fingerprints are otherwise mercifully hard to see. It is foolhardy at best for anyone to have believed that Rihanna, a smart, shrewd, and boundlessly funny international businesswoman who can cast aside stars of rap and sports like corn husks as she pleases, could be the marionette of a nakedly ambitious, admittedly drug addled social climber like Scott. ANTI having relatively fuckall to do with his kingdom of anesthetized after hours club table dancing is beautiful vindication. She tries it on briefly with “Woo,” casually outstrips his capabilities as a vocalist, and tosses it out to try something else.
ANTI's changing faces can be disorienting. One minute Riri’s pining for connection in “Work” and later she’s informing a lover that he’s “just another nigga on the hitlist” in “Needed Me.” But life’s like that. You have to stumble into a couple of commitment-phobes, quick lays, deserters, and basics to find a real one. There’s honesty in ANTI's slipperiness. No one wants one thing all the time, in love or music. Why should it be any different for Rihanna? In ANTI, she’s made a record that’s challenging, true to life, and beautifully sung. It might not be the party-in-a-box many longed for, but life neither begins nor ends at the door of a nightclub, and Rihanna’s acknowledgment of this truth has paid off in one of the best bodies of work of her career.
Craig Jenkins is a contributing editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.