Sex, drugs, freedom: Rihanna makes her first great album-length statement
For much of 2015, repeated delays and a lack of solid information started to make Rihanna's Anti feel like pop's mythical creature. Now that we know it's real, we can hear the singer's eighth LP for what it is: a sprawling masterpiece of psychedelic soul that's far more straightforward than its tangled rollout. The three full years since 2012's Unapologetic – the longest break between releases in Rihanna's career – turned out to be exactly what she needed to make a rich full-length statement. After more than a decade as a superstar of the singles chart, Rihanna has become an album artist.
Anti is first and foremost an experience built on vibes. Where previous LPs were built around clear peaks, here the songs fit together into a fluid landscape of seamless transitions – check the flow on the excellent mid-album run of after-hours joints from "Desperado" to "Woo" to "Needed Me." Every song sounds like our collective fantasy of Rihanna: a carefree island girl lounging in a cloud of smoke, asserting a brand of independence that's wholly her own. On "James Joint," she assures us that she'd "rather be/Smoking weed/Whenever we breathe/Every time you kiss me" in her most dulcet tones. "You been rollin' around/Shit, I'm rollin' up," she asserts on the biting kiss-off track "Needed Me." Clearly, the stoned party goddess we've seen on Instagram and Snapchat is pretty close to the real Rihanna.
Anti's beats are more muted than the flashier productions of her past work, which leaves room for the album's biggest revelation: Rihanna's show-stopping vocal performances. One year ago, on one-off single "FourFiveSeconds," she belted in a raw, raspy tone that expressed levels of soul the previous decade of her career had only hinted at. Here, she follows through on that promise, singing powerfully and with a deeper emotional density than she's revealed before. On the bluesy late-album highlight "Higher," when she sings "This whiskey got me feelin' pretty" over a dusty strings sample from producer No ID, she could be crooning in a smoky post-war jazz club.
Rihanna serves up a one-two punch of left-field choices in the album's second half, giving doo-wop a modern spin with ease on "Love on the Brain" and finding a new hypnotic pull in a Tame Impala song on "Same Ol' Mistakes," Anti's most shocking track. It's a faithful take on Australian psych-pop mastermind Kevin Parker's 2015 tune, but Rihanna's mellow vocals make it worlds more inviting and compelling.
At her core, though, she's still a hitmaker. Single "Work" isn't even her best collaboration with Drake – that would be 2011's expansive house ballad Take Care" – but it's an impeccably catchy glide across a subtle, syrupy dancehall beat. The sexy, deep synth-pop of "Desperado," meanwhile, could easily make it a club hit by summer; and Rih has her Purple Rain moment on the shimmering, funky "Kiss It Better," which serves as the album's most direct pop moment by far.
Ultimately, Anti's sound is more than just another new costume for a singer who's dabbled in everything from flirty teen-pop to aggressive trap over the last decade-plus. This is an album that forces us to question the boxes we've placed Rihanna in all along. Is she queen of the clubs or a break-up balladeer? Are her pop instincts sharper than her hip-hop ones? The answer, as provided here, is all of the above and more. After years as a singer largely defined by her production, it finally feels like Rihanna is in charge of her own sound, remaking pop on her own terms. As she puts it bluntly on the glitchy groove "Consideration," which opens the LP: "I got to do things my own way, darling."