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Rihanna's leaving radio behind on the strange, defiant ANTI

The pop star's first album since 2012 isn't catchy or clubby, but it's enjoyably weird

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Rihanna would rather be smoking weed. She admits as much just a few minutes into ANTI, her eighth LP and first since 2012’s Unapologetic; she does so on "James Joint," a bubbling, casually lusty interlude that splits the difference between Stevie Wonder and Flying Lotus. In the three-plus years since her last major release, it’s become clear that Rihanna doesn’t really need music anymore, at least not in a financial or a cultural sense. It’s the coal she shovels into the furnace that spits out world tours, music videos, and breathless tweets from fans around the world, and it doesn’t have to be much more. She’s a fashion icon, a perfume magnate, and an invested participant in music’s streaming wars.

More importantly, she’s an avatar for self-empowerment and personal liberation in a world where people define themselves by pushing against the bounds of their identities. She’s the matron saint of people who hotbox in their showers and call it vital self-care. Is there another top-tier pop star who could fit a tempestuous album rollout and botched release into their personal narrative so easily? (Imagine her on the phone with a Tidal executive after the service mistakenly leaked her album onto the internet, blunt in hand: "Fuck it, let’s just drop the damn thing.") This detachment from any sort of musical expectation is what allows Rihanna to release something like ANTI, an album that’s strange, defiant, and defined by the spirit of DGAF. It’s not going to blow up the charts or win her casual listeners, but it’s hers, and no musician working has a better handle on the value of being yourself.

There's no precedent for ANTI in Rihanna's catalog

When it comes to both stylistic breadth and sheer stickiness, there isn’t much of a precedent for ANTI in Rihanna’s discography. She’s never been a standard-bearer for tonal consistency, but her albums have typically relied on one or two foundational sounds. Music of the Sun and A Girl Like Me infused boilerplate pop-R&B with the dancehall of her native Barbados; Talk That Talk and Unapologetic rode the cresting waves of EDM and trap. All of those albums were anchored by at least one unstoppable single. There’s no such sure thing on ANTI, and it veers from downcast, corroded R&B to delicate acoustic balladry. At one point she tucks into a reverent cover of Tame Impala’s "New Person, Same Old Mistakes," and it’s really more like karaoke: she’s just singing over Kevin Parker’s original vocals and arrangement without making any changes. (I guess she’s had Currents on repeat in the aforementioned smoky bathroom.) Save lead single "Work," none of these songs are particularly catchy or inviting. The album doesn’t get any hookier than "James Joint," the minute-long interlude thrown online as a 4/20 treat last year.

Her voice has never sounded better

If there’s a thread tying all of these songs together, it’s Rihanna’s voice, which has never sounded better. At her absolute commercial peak, there were songs in which she wasn’t much more than a cog in Stargate and David Guetta’s immaculate machines; she drives every track on ANTI forward. "Higher" is lush, crackling, and rendered indelible by her raspy howl, a natural extension of her work on last year’s "FourFiveSeconds." (It helps that "This whiskey got me feelin’ pretty" is a first-ballot Hall of Fame opening line.) On "Love on the Brain," she takes a piece of doo-wop that could’ve been mangled by Meghan Trainor and uses it to show off a side of her voice I’ve never heard before, one that’s mousey, fluttering, and dependent. "Close to You" is a subtle, pained successor to "Stay," the Unapologetic ballad that’s shone in the hands of everyone from Rebecca Black to Vin Diesel. The album’s sonic diversity pays off in this regard: it’s a joy hearing her navigate tracks that are so wildly different.

ANTI ultimately feels like a transitional record, which is remarkable given both the length of its gestation period and the hype surrounding its release. These songs suggest paths forward for Rihanna, but they don’t feel like destinations. Part of me wishes she’d decamp to Los Angeles for a few months with Thundercat and the rest of the Brainfeeder crew for a dozen songs like "James Joint." (She’s already halfway there through working with the alt-R&B talent SZA on opener "Consideration.") Another part of me wants her to pack up some mushrooms and board a flight to Australia. Why sing Tame Impala karaoke when you can actually get Parker in the room?

It’s exciting that the sort of take-no-prisoners self-determination Rihanna’s come to represent is manifesting itself in her music, but there’s a big difference between realizing your independence and finding focus within that freedom. ANTI is a low-key, lukewarm first step; let’s hope it takes her less than four years to move forward from it.

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