Rihanna finalized it with the slow-paced, reggae-slash-electronic, hip-swaying opening song on her new album, ANTI: The era of collaborations with Sean Paul, umbrella dances in black shiny cat suits, pleading to the DJ to “Don’t stop the music,” and general 2000’s pop antics is officially over.
Has it been a slow transition? Well, not really. Rihanna’s last official album, Unapologetic, came out in 2012 and included some pretty heavily dance-floor-inspired tracks, such as “Jump,” “Phresh out the Runway,” and “Diamonds,” the last of which, while catchy and immensely popular, does absolutely nothing interesting or innovative on a lyrical or musical level.
Also present on Unapologetic was the apex of shamelessly vapid dance music, “Right Now,” a purely pop-EDM collaboration with David Guetta, which I think I last heard during a SoulCycle class while a sassy, flamboyant instructor screamed over its pulsing beats, “Feed your fire, baby!”
Between Unapologetic and ANTI came a few singles. There was “FourFiveSeconds,” the oddly bare collaboration with Kanye West and Paul McCartney, and “Bitch Better Have My Money” along with the (in my opinion) uncalled-for gore of its music video. Both tracks hinted at the ushering in of this new Rihanna, the former with its melodic charm and the latter with its sticky tempo that induced more of a swagger than any urgency to hit the dance floor. There was also the under-played “American Oxygen,” which doesn’t merit much discussion save for its continuance of Rihanna’s trend towards slow tempos and stripped-down sounds.
A friend recently told me that when ANTI first came out, he fell off the map for a couple days, locked in his room with the album blasting. So I figured I had to give it a listen. And although it was anything but what I expected, I was pleasantly surprised.
On ANTI, Rihanna pulls from a wide variety of musical genres as well as her Caribbean roots to somehow assemble a coherent, impressive album. There’s “Yeah, I Said It,” a stripped-down R&B piece. There are ballads like “Kiss It Better” and “Love on the Brain,” whose tortured, belted-out phrases echo ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s love songs. There’s even “Never Ending,” undercut with quick-paced, muted guitar strums that border on indie folk music. And all of it is glossed over with Rihanna’s unmistakable vocals, simultaneously edgy and smooth.
It used to be that Rihanna was music you danced to. The plethora of middle school charity dances with which I associate her early work—the grind lines where no one really knew what grinding was and how it was done, the plastic Kanye glasses and piles of beaded necklaces—are symptomatic of the sound she was producing: fun, beat-driven, danceable.
But ANTI marks a turning point for Rihanna: It’s more self-consciously artistic, more carefully crafted and honed with earnest consideration for its influences and predecessors. Unfortunately, however, it’s less fun.
One exception is “Work,” the collaboration with Drake released as a single before the album and strategically placed fourth on the album after three significantly more downbeat tracks. “Work,” one of the most danceable tracks on the album, is undeniably playful, and its island-y feel is reminiscent of Beyoncé’s “Standing on the Sun” – effortlessly cool and irresistibly catchy.
But even in “Work,” it’s clear that Rihanna no longer cares if audiences want to buy or download her music. It’s her work (no pun intended), and it’s out there for you to enjoy if you’re capable of appreciating it. As Jenna Wortham points out in the title of her “New York Times Magazine” review, “ANTI is the record you make when you don’t need to sell records.”
Another indication that ANTI is a seminal moment in Rihanna’s career is that it includes few featured artists. Instead, she sets out to establish her own sound, collaborating only with Drake (who has also recently made forays into more artistic and less crowd-pleasing work) and alt R&B artist SZA, who has partnered with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper. (Additionally, there’s a brief appearance by Rihanna’s rumored boyfriend Travis Scott in “Woo,” who co-produced the similarly industrial, slightly trap-influenced “Bitch Better Have My Money.”)
Even in “Needed Me,” when Rihanna sings over beats from DJ Mustard, she features not his signature clubby sound from quick, heavily hip-hop-driven tracks like Chris Brown’s “Loyal” and T.I.’s “No Mediocre,” but instead one of his slower beats, one that sounds much more like stripped-down R&B.
Nevertheless, Rihanna maintains her trademark edge on ANTI, a sass and superiority that has always been present in her music but that she has now earned. Her lyrics exude a shoulder-brushing attitude that she 100 percent pulls off and that makes listeners both terrified of and fascinated with her. (If you need proof of Rihanna’s intimidating presence, look no further than this awe-struck New York Times article, “A Very Revealing Conversation With Rihanna.”) Her cool-girl attitude, combined with her keen fashion sense and ever-evolving originality, place her at the top of the music industry’s talent crop.
Another quality that renders Rihanna more of an “artist” in the classical sense of the word is that she lacks the cult-y fan base that artists like Beyoncé (with whom she is often compared) have amassed. She has also ceased blurring the lines between her music and her personal life, boundaries that many other artists have entirely dissolved in the past few years. Consider, for example, Beyoncé’s music videos and world tour alongside husband Jay-Z, Blue Ivy often in tow, as well as Kanye West’s marriage to, video with, and recurrent lyrics about a reality TV star whom I don’t think needs to be named.
Rihanna, however, concentrates more on her artistic evolution. This is not to say that Beyoncé or Kanye West are any less focused or accomplished, but to simply point out that Rihanna is almost exclusively focused on her music, quietly delivering sounds not designed for mass listening or blasting at parties but simply the fruits of her own creativity. Visually, she often presents herself as a work of art, garbed in high fashion and edgy accessories. But she is first and foremost a musician, and a talented one at that.
So maybe she’s not breaking dishes anymore. But I would argue that Rihanna has grown up, and that with her maturity she has gained a new attitude towards music and art. She has revealed herself as an increasingly fascinating, ever-evolving artist, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.