Even before the public heard a single note of music, Anti was already one of the most intriguing musical releases of 2016. After putting out a new record almost every year since her 2005 debut Music Of The Sun, Rihanna took a break following 2012’s Unapologetic. She maintained a degree of omnipresence through a variety of guest features, stopgap singles, and her own outsized celebrity, but the thirst for a full-length release grew to unwieldy levels. A $25-million sponsorship deal with Samsung followed; Kanye West signed on and then departed as the album’s executive producer. A succession of online AntiDiary room openings that teased the album’s release for months helped lead to a surprise leak at the last minute, forcing Tidal’s hand into dropping it on a random Wednesday evening. That Anti improbably stacks up against all these events is a testament to Rihanna’s surprisingly focused vision.
At its heart, Anti is a record about relationships, as Riri explores what it means to be in love, to get hurt, to need someone, and to be true to yourself. On “Kiss It Better,” over a gorgeous array of ’80s power rock electric guitar lines, she wants to know what an ex-lover is willing to do to get back in her good graces. In the plodding, metallic “Woo,” Rihanna goes into full-on spite mode, declaring, “I don’t even really care about you no more,” although it’s obvious that she still does. In the sweet and simple acoustic ballad “Never Ending,” she admits, “It doesn’t have to feel so strange / To be in love again.”
Anti’s musical arrangements are generally dark and sparsely layered, centering Rihanna’s never-better voice as the undeniable focal point for every song. In her lithe, feathery falsetto on Tame Impala’s “Same ’Ol Mistakes,” the deep soulful tones of “Love On The Brain,” and the meters-in-the-red bombast on interlude track “Higher,” she displays a starling degree of vocal dexterity and acumen. Her ever-shifting affectations force the songs to come to her rather than letting the production dictate the overall vibe. Even though she plays the Tame Impala cover fairly straight, she gives the song a new and unique energy.
Much like Anti’s one-time executive producer Kanye West, it appears that Rihanna wants to put the events of 2015 far out of her mind, excluding “Four, Five Seconds,” “Bitch Better Have My Money,” and “American Oxygen.” It’s an interesting choice on Riri’s part to exclude these legitimate hits from Anti, considering that there’s not much else on the record that jumps out as an obvious single. “Work,” featuring Drake, is the natural choice, but the sheer repetition of the hook creates a built-in expiration date for when this song transitions from catchy to mildly annoying.
Ultimately, it might be to Anti’s artistic benefit that those tracks were excised, as they likely would have only usurped the natural cohesion of the album’s general themes and sonic moods. The “don’t give a fuck” posture that Rihanna has adopted in her public life naturally works its way into the DNA of the songs here, making the moments when that façade cracks incredibly compelling. She clearly knows what she wants—whether it’s a single late-night encounter on “Yeah, I Said It” (“I ain’t tryin’ to think about it, no / Yeah, I said it, boy, get up inside it”) or to be with someone else on “Love On The Brain” (“I’m fist-fighting with fire just to get close to you / Can we burn something babe?”)—and she’s adamant in her pursuit. In the end, Anti’s tracks combine to create a picture of Rihanna at her most relatable and enthralling.