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Review: Rihanna’s Anti Rewrites the Rules of Her Career

7 minute read

The great irony of Rihanna’s long-awaited, years-in-the-making album Anti, which finally arrived on Tidal on Wednesday evening, is this: for most of the Barbadian pop star’s career, her albums were hardly something people hungered for. They arrived like clockwork almost every year, usually in November, to the point that by 2012, the last time she released a record, her fans (and perhaps even her advisers) were suggesting she slow down and take a break.

Rihanna albums weren’t always consistent bodies of work, either. They were building toward one hell of a greatest hits collection, but they were often hodgepodges of tracks from top hitmakers for whom Rihanna was just a vessel. The songwriter Sia, who wrote Rihanna’s global hit “Diamonds,” says that Rihanna stuck so closely to the track’s original demo that at first Sia thought it was her voice, not Rihanna’s, on the final product. Yet Anti, as its title suggests, flips the order of Rihanna’s universe. It bets on the value of cohesive albums in a pop universe dominated by singles and wisely lets its star—her talents, her whims, her personality—become the center of gravity. In throwing out everything you think you know about a Rihanna album, Rihanna shows you why you’d want one in the first place.

Rihanna has certainly earned the right to set the rules at this point in her career. She is one of the most successful female solo artists in history, with as many No. 1 singles to her name as Michael Jackson. She’s also been one of pop’s most influential figures, helping usher electronic dance music (EDM) into the mainstream and boosting the careers of another class of pop stars with her leftovers—Rihanna had first pass at Selena Gomez’s “Same Old Love” and Miley Cyrus’ hip-hop coming-out party, “We Can’t Stop.” If you wanted to be a pop star in the past few years, sounding like Rihanna was evidently your best bet, even if it was hard to keep up with Rihanna’s mercurial mix of dance music, hip-hop and Caribbean-inspired pop.

Yet all those dollar signs mean little if your heart’s not in it. During Anti’s gestation period, Rihanna admitted that being one of North America’s most prolific divas was not longer fulfilling. “I wanted songs that I could perform in 15 years,” she told MTV last year of her vision for what eventually became Anti. “I didn’t want to perform a lot of my songs because they don’t feel like me. So I want songs that are timeless.” Now, after watching Anti’s rollout turn into an absolute mess—the false starts, the rumors, the scrapped singles, the album’s early leak—Rihanna seems determined to explain what took her so long on opening track “Consideration”: “I got to do things my own way, darling,” she cries in a thick patois. “Will you ever let me? Will you ever respect me? No! … Why you will never let me grow?”

And, boy, how Anti gives Rihanna room grow: the last time Rihanna took more than a year to put out a big artistic statement, it was for 2009’s Rated R. But looking back, what seemed out of left-field for her then plays like a darker twist on what she was already doing. Now, on Anti, Rihanna further indulges her personal tastes, which are perhaps more alternative than anyone realized, with distorted guitars, gurgling bass parts and a cover of Australian psych-rock group Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” (Calling it a “cover” might be a little generous—she sings over the band’s original instrumental from last year without much interpretation.)

In a move that may turn off segments of her devoted Navy, Anti eschews Rihanna’s club-banging, dance-pop calling cards in favor of lush, hazy arrangements that waft around like smoke from the joints she’s often singing about. (This album sounds great in headphones—even ones that don’t cost $9,000.) “Timeless” here means time-traveling: the stellar slow-jam “Kiss It Better” opens with a guitar solo straight out of the ‘80s, but if today’s high school seniors are smart, they’ll put this on their prom playlists. By the end of the album, she’s channelling old-school soul on two songs that offer the most stirring vocal performances of her career, perfect for their imperfections: “Love on the Brain,” which has an unmissable reference to the brutal 2009 assault she suffered at the hands of then-boyfriend Chris Brown (“It beats me black and blue but it f-cks me so good”); and “Higher,” a whiskey-soaked come-hither that clocks in at an all-too-brief two minutes.

The album took almost as many producers and writers as her last record did, but without liner notes, it’d be easy to believe her pool of collaborators, which includes Timbaland and the Weeknd, was much smaller given how well these songs fit together. Their consistency also helps explain why last year’s string of Rihanna singles—the Kanye West-Paul McCartney collaboration “FourFiveSeconds,” the ruthless “Bitch Better Have My Money,” the quasi-political “American Oxygen”—didn’t make the final cut. They would have been jarring inclusions on an album that, if anything, is a work of unexpected subtlety from an artist rarely associated with that word. (That, or Rihanna wanted a fresh start on an album the Internet was starting to treat like a big joke.)

Anti’s lack of an obvious Rihanna smash places the album in the same tradition of previous surprise releases from Beyoncé, Azealia Banks and, heck, even Miley Cyrus (though the way Anti sputtered across the finish line barely qualifies as a “surprise” at this point). Beyoncé wondered aloud if she’d “make no money” from her 2013 opus about motherhood, marriage and feminism. (She rode her surfbort to the top anyway.) Banks’ oft-delayed Broke With Expensive Taste signaled that the rapper wasn’t interested in trying to top her breakout hit “212,” and she even had her own Rihanna-Tame Impala moment with an alternate version of an Ariel Pink song. Cyrus so urgently wanted listeners to meet her new, psychedelic self that she released her marijuana-fueled Dead Petz album for free without counting it toward her record-label contract. These artists had a perspective that was more important than their commercial prospects, more important than who listeners thought they were or what kind of music they made before.

Rihanna has a clear point of view on Anti too, and it’s a depressing one. The lyrical glimpses into Rihanna’s personal life echo her dissatisfaction with her own musical legacy. This is an album about what gets cropped out of her beloved zero-f—s-given Instagram account; an album that reveals just how unfulfilling, if not downright alienating, being a superstar can be. On the catchy, dancehall-tinged first single, “Work,” featuring Drake, Rihanna isn’t working on getting paid—she’s putting work into a relationship that desperately needs it. She gives back-to-back shoutouts to her loneliness on “Desperado” and the menacing “Woo.” She nearly bookends the album with altered-state booty calls before offering one last plea for intimacy on the tender piano ballad “Close to You.”

Yeah, yeah, being Rihanna is an awfully hard job, you might be thinking, but she earns the listener’s sympathy when she looks herself in the mirror on the guitar-driven Dido co-write (!) “Never Ending” and admits she doesn’t like—or even recognize—what she sees. “I knew your face once but now it’s unclear/ I can’t find my body now/ separate from here and now,” she sings. In exploring her unhappiness at the top, Rihanna finds her most compelling voice yet.

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com