For a while, it seemed like Anti, the eighth album by the Barbadian pop powerhouse Rihanna, was more of an idea than an actual collection of songs. That the album finally materialized on Wednesday night, a little more than three years after Rihanna’s last album, Unapologetic, still seems almost impossible.
Rihanna released a smattering of singles last year, none of which appear on Anti; of those songs, the circuitous “American Oxygen” is probably the closest to this album sonically. On this album, Rihanna’s focus is turned inward — toward herself and lovers who consistently disappoint her by not showing up, both emotionally and physically. Anti‘s equivalent of a “banger” is probably the first single, “Work,” released Wednesday morning. Rihanna lolls about over a spare beat (courtesy of Partynextdoor and Boi-1da), alternating regretful asides about loneliness with bedroom-related demands; Drake shows up to briefly act semi-sensitive, then (wisely) cedes the floor to his hostess/fixation. There’s also “Woo,” a grinding-gears track full of barely enunciated spite that’ll probably inspire quite a few scream-alongs on its defiant “I don’t even really care about you no more” chorus. (Rumored paramour Travi$ Scott offers up a theremin impersonation and a couple of “yeahs.”)
But for the most part, Anti is brooding and at times claustrophobic, made for those lonely stretched-out moments in the aftermath of highs and thrills. An austere Timbaland beat anchors the exhausted come-on “Yeah I Said It”; “Kiss It Better” is a gorgeously juicy slow jam that calls out to a departed lover over a thick guitar solo; the downcast “Desperado” turns Rihanna into a reluctant Lone Ranger, searching for someone to accompany her as she rides around a blasted-to-bits landscape. A gauzy, yet faithful cover of “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” by the Australian indie-psych outfit Tame Impala — called “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” with production credited to Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker — opens with cymbal hits that fleetingly bring to mind the opening of Rihanna’s 2007 megahit “Umbrella,” although the song that follows trips through lovelorn doubt in ways far removed from that brashly confident track.
The end of Anti plays out like the tail end of a night, when last-call bravado fades into something more thoughtful. “Love on the Brain” is rooted in buttoned-down music that sounds plucked from a mid-20th-century prom band’s slow-dance repertoire, although the imagery Rihanna uses to describe love — “fist-fighting with fire just to get close to you,” “it beats me black and blue but it fucks me so good” — hints at something more desperate. “Higher,” meanwhile, is a brief drunk-dial (“This whiskey got me feelin’ pretty/So pardon if I’m impolite,” Rihanna wails at its outset) that cuts off just as she’s about to launch into a more detailed description of her wanting. “Close to You” winds Anti down, Rihanna subdued and wistful over a tinkling piano, hesitantly beckoning toward a reluctant other.
Much of Rihanna’s pop-cultural appeal — the fuel for the GIFs, the retweets, the excitable blog posts — comes from the way she seemingly exists on her own terms. The longer-than-usual gestation period for Anti was an extension of that pay-no-mind attitude, a change-up from the brutal album-of-bangers-a-year strategy that helped her exercise domination over the charts. Anti is particularly striking in this context; the “Rihanna” on this album is alone and yearning for more. That she’s finding too-brief highs provided by drugs, sex and seemingly having it all instead of something more lasting is so exhausting that she can’t not care — and Anti serves as a sometimes-frustrating, often-fascinating documentation of that all-encompassing weariness.