While the sentiments of Rihanna's eighth studio album are multiple, and sometimes contradictory, the overarching theme is one of agency: the unilateral power to choose, to define, to determine. This downtempo, deterministic slant is the most intriguing aspect of ANTI — her first LP since 2012 — as it stiff-arms conformity, dabbles in nihilism and fuels itself by way of mood-shifting empowerment.
It's an R&B record — unmistakably so across these 13 tracks —imperfectly perfect in many aspects but held together by Rihanna's charisma, eff-you attitude and sensuality. She's rawer than Beyoncé, hands down, but more refined than her younger contemporaries. Indeed, there's magic in the way she manages to meld the trap R&B era with a more traditional — read: mainstream-compatible — musical methodology.
Let's be real: Rihanna isn't as much a singer as a recording artist, and she makes good use of the studio here. The glitchy bounce of opening number "Consideration" — "I got to do things my own way, darling" — sets the tone nicely, as SZA (of the TDE crew) lends vocals to the stutter-step drums. The breezy "James Joint" has the mark of producer James Fauntleroy all over it; it's a digital organic interlude of sorts that squarely hits the mark. "Work" featuring Drake is perhaps the perfect anti-single; its reggae dub feel, midtempo bounce and contribution from Drake all subtle dares not to embrace it.
"Love On the Brain" with its old-timey, slow arpeggios offers a fleeting glimpse of her ability to deliver a straight-up soul album, and one imagines that the lyric "Stop thinking you're the only option" was the one that sold her on co-opting Tame Impala's "New Person, Same Old Mistakes" for "Same Ol' Mistakes." Riding the same beat with even dreamier vocals, it's a clear standout on the record.
Tracks like ""Kiss It Better" and Close To You" are the closest concessions to the pop charts, but the strong self-preserving sentiment of the former — "Man, fuck your pride" — and the rap-infused "Needed Me" should prove pleasing and relatable to her fan base. The Canadian quotient runs heavy on the album; besides Drake, the Weeknd helped out with the writing duties on "Woo," while producer Boi-1da served up the sonic foundation for "Work."
Songs that make good use of Rihanna's vocal range — or lack thereof — has been the key to an album that feels consistent front to back; ANTI is perhaps her most complete and confident record to date. Where she manages to take things from here anyone's guess. (Universal)