Saturday, 8 October 2016

RIHANNA: Anti (2016)

After a four-year hiatus, Anti was released at the beginning of this year. Rihanna had released a couple of hit singles (none of which appear here), but combined with a couple of missed release dates, it's clear the singer had made a choice to take her time.

Going into this one, I was  a little trepidatious -- the album cover looked like the worst kind of self-conscious cover art and the number of songs seemed really ambitious. Sixteen songs is a pretty hefty track list, and Rihanna's albums are generally bursting with filler.

The album opener, 'Consideration', is a duet with neo-soul singer SZA. It immediately sets you in the headspace for something different. This is followed by 'James Joint', a dreamy little ditty about Mary Jane (not Spider-Man's girlfriend). Too bad it's just over a minute long.

'Work' is another big hit which I cannot get into. The chorus is repetitive and grating. The interplay with Drake is the best part of the song, and saves it from being a complete washout.

'Desperado' is this weird, kinda-slow jam with an imposing bass and synthetic drum beat. It builds into a strangely romantic track about a woman basically threatening her lover who is getting itchy feet.

At this point, the album starts to sound like if Frank Ocean remade Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. Songs like 'Woo' and 'Needed Me' have that same focus on synth atmos and disconnected vocals. There's a bit of echo to Rihanna's voice which makes it a little more haunting and almost James Blake-like (especially on 'Yeah, I Said It'). 

The lyrics are concerned with failed relationships, and making a clean break. While not as explicit as Marvin Gaye's autobiographical 1978 album, Anti is similarly introspective and self-focused. The way Rihanna's voice drifts in and out, with a simple, repetitive, almost dance-like rhythm is also very evocative of songs like 'When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You' and 'Anger'.

Unlike Gaye's effort, the focus on synths means Anti is a more chilly affair. Thematically, this makes more sense -- Rihanna's album is about a woman looking back with a degree of distance; Gaye's album is stuck in the moment, when the anger and confusion still feel fresh.

Of these tracks, 'Same Ol' Mistakes' feels like a culmination. Over 6 and a half minutes, Rihanna castigates herself for feeling like a 'new person' even though she keeps falling into the same line of behaviour.

'Never Ending' sees the album change tacks again -- it's another ballad based around acoustic guitar. It's too bad Rihanna is such a four-quadrant pop star: it would be cool if she took one album to go into one of the genres she cherry picks from.

'Love On The Brain' is a wonderful surprise. It's an old school, 50s-style soul number, complete with backing chorus and electric organ. More of this please!

'Higher' is a more comedic take on a torch song. Containing lines like 'This whiskey got me feeling pretty', slurred delivery and a slightly jerky string section, it manages to be pretty funny while also feeling completely sincere, as Rihanna beseeches her lover to take her back. There's a vulnerability to her vocal which makes the song a bit darker, and adds an edge to the humour.

'Close To You' sounds like a piano ballad from the early Nineties. It's a nice, subdued little number and the perfect closer.

The edition I have is the deluxe version, with three extra tracks. I have to say, they are pretty anti-climactic.

'Goodnight Gotham' strikes a bum note -- it sounds like a crappy cast-off from Rated R. The next two tracks, 'Pose' and 'Sex With Me', are better but in a similar aggressive vein. Best to go with the regular release -- these tracks are not essential, and detract from the overall effect.

I have to say, I REALLY liked this album. The time away has really helped the overall quality of this effort, and the extended track list allows Rihanna to try out a bunch of different styles and tones. Following a few albums where it felt like she was in neutral, Anti feels like a genuine progression for the pop star.

For her next album, Rihanna should consider working with a different creative team -- like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Maybe it's the vague echoes of Janet Jackson on some of her harder tracks, but I feel like a collaboration with those guys could lead to something really cool that will keep her feeling fresh and interesting.


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