‘Anti’: When Rihanna Rejected The Pop Paradigm

After ruling the charts for over a decade, Rihanna was ready to leave the pop assembly line and get personal on her eighth album, ‘Anti.’

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Rihanna Anti Album
Cover: Courtesy of Universal Music

After a seven-album run as a pop hitmaker, Rihanna sought to change her formula like never before. Breaking a four-year silence – her longest yet – Anti was, as she told Vogue, the result of her search for music to “match my growth.” Going platinum in less than 24 hours, it saw the Barbadian pop icon conquer her fears and push her creative boundaries even further. Hitting No.1 on the Billboard 200, it also made Rihanna the first black female artist to chart for 200 weeks on the coveted listings. In the risk-averse world of pop, she had proved, yet again, that she was capable of shaking things up.

Listen to Anti now.

An enigmatic arrival

Since her 2005 debut album, Music Of The Sun, the superstar had released a new album almost every year, with a deluxe Reloaded edition of Good Girl Gone Bad filling a gap in 2008. Following 2012’s Unapologetic, Rihanna had also been expanding her empire into other industries, from film to fashion, while dropping a string of singles to appease the masses.

The pop diva formed part of an unlikely trio on the folky, strumalong single “FourFiveSeconds,” which was released in January 2015 and was quickly followed by the swaggering trap hit “B__ch Better Have My Money,” on which Rihanna reminds everyone: “Don’t act like you forgot/I call the shots, shots, shots.”

With divergent sounds on each single, critics and fans didn’t know what to expect from Anti. The unorthodox cover art was equally inscrutable, engulfed in a wash of red paint and picturing a young Rihanna holding a balloon and wearing an oversized crown that covers her eyes. The artwork also featured a poem in Braille, entitled “If They Let Us, Part I,” which made the album’s narrative arc more clear: “I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood. It is simply because what I want to say, what I need to say, won’t be heard. Heard in a way I so rightfully deserve.”

Maintaining her status

Despite a meticulous launch plan, Anti leaked on January 27, 2016 – the same day the singer dropped its first single, “Work,” and two days before the album’s scheduled release date.

Rihanna - Work (Explicit) ft. Drake

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Though “Work” shared similar dancehall DNA to Rihanna’s previous albums, it saw her pay tribute to her Caribbean roots in more than just production. Singing in Jamaican patois, Rihanna confused most international listeners, who initially wrote off the lyrics as gibberish. In the same Vogue interview, however, the signer explained how “Work” was one of her most authentic singles: “That’s how we speak in the Caribbean. It’s very broken and it’s, like, you can understand everything someone means without even finishing the words.”

While many listeners were hooked by the earworm chorus, which helped propel the song to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100, they missed the more nuanced context.

Featuring a guest verse from Drake, “Work” operates on two counts: working hard to maintain a relationship, while also working hard to fix oneself. Just as Rihanna states, “I got to do things my own way, darling,” on Anti’s opener, “Consideration,” “Work” also refers to how the singer tirelessly worked to maintain her status.

An album of moods

Though most of Rihanna’s discography is punctuated by flashy dance-pop numbers and radio-ready R&B ballads, Anti is made up of moods. With a more scaled-back production, her voice takes center-stage over minimalistic beats as she embraces the more languid, genre-averse approach to the then-emerging strain of pop-R&B. To achieve this, she enlisted all the star architects of this sound, including The-Dream, Timbaland, and The Weeknd.

If Rated R was all bombast and arena-sized pop-rock, Anti (and its second single, “Kiss It Better”) paid homage to the sexier, funkier side of 80s pop. While not as commercially successful as some of her bigger hits, the sexed-up “Kiss It Better” was emblematic of everything that Rihanna had been working towards; channeling Prince throughout, Rihanna also gave the song the erotically-charged video it deserved.

Rihanna - Kiss It Better (Explicit)

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Throughout the 2010s, Rihanna had been the outlaw of pop music, but even with her unorthodox style she managed to find hits that reached large audiences. Following “Kiss It Better” with the trap-R&B hit “Needed Me,” she returned to her gun-toting persona, flipping the script as she declares, “Didn’t I tell you I was a savage?/ F__k your white horse and your carriage,” on the Top 10 hit.

Just as Anti was an experiment with genre and production, Rihanna also used the album to explore new vocal techniques. From her Island drawl on “Work” to the staccato delivery she employed for the outlaw balled “Desperado,” Rihanna plays with different personas on each track. “Woo” features even more vocal distortion, plus a guest vocal and production by Travis Scott, as Rihanna sings about an on-again, off-again relationship.

A pop rebellion

From the title alone, it’s clear that Anti was a reaction to popular music at the time. That said, Rihanna still expressed a desire to create “timeless music,” which is where “Love On The Brain” fits in.

Love On The Brain

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The doo-wop-soul ballad is darker than you realize upon first listen, as Rihanna confesses, “It beats me black and blue, but it f__ks me so good.” A year after Anti’s release, and its accompanying world tour, “Love On The Brain” reached the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Elsewhere, the acoustic ballad “Never Ending” is clearly inspired by her previous collaborators Coldplay (it would have felt right at home on that band’s Mylo Xyloto album) and borrows a vocal melody from another adult contemporary staple, Dido’s “Thank You.”

The latter half of Anti is full of more downtempo, sensual cuts. Both “Yeah, I Said It” and “Same Ol’ Mistakes” see Rihanna at her most vulnerable. Produced by Timbaland, the former is a steamy romp that nods to moody 90s quiet-storm R&B and is reminiscent of the track “Skin,” from her 2010 album, Loud.

An exploratory nature

One of biggest surprises on Anti was Rihanna’s faithful rendition of Tame Impala’s Currents track “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” Retooled and retitled as “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” Rihanna sings the song from a feminine perspective, giving it a new artistic meaning. It’s here that she realizes she can’t dwell on the mistakes she keeps making and learns to love the individual that she’s become.

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At the tail-end of the album, Rihanna displays her vocal talents on a string of ballads. On “Higher” she sings with abandon, tapping into a more raw, raspier part of her voice, while closing track “Close To You” is the kind of torch song she’d been striving for her whole career. As a whole, Anti’s exploratory nature revealed more facets of Rihanna’s creative restlessness, as she retreated further away from music, turning the album into what came to feel like a closing statement.

Anti can be bought here.

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