In the last few years, musicians have gotten progressively more – – well, progressive. Artists that were pop-radio mainstays have started to stray from stringy, by-the-book singles in pursuit of their more Warhol-esque artistic endeavors. We had Beyonce’s, Beyonce project in 2013 which stopped the usual catering to radio standards and now we get ANTI, Rihanna’s attribution to this rapidly diversifying landscape we find ourself wandering in. When compared to her usual fare of songs, ANTI finds itself occupying an entirely different genre of sounds. Looking at its usual, hi-bar, electronic and techno elements on her last few projects that were practically commissioned to take the spot at the top of the charts, it is like day and night. Although, this does seem to make sense, as the more recent players to have emerged onto the radar are changing the sound of popularity.
Rather than similarity and relying on tired formulas, musicians are finally starting to rely on their own artistic interests, for better or for worse, when it comes to laboring over their craft. Here, I would have to say, for the most part, ANTI’s adventurous exploratory spirit pays off much more than it disappoints. Stylistically, the project ventures coast to coast and decade to decade posting sounds of past, present and future equally on display. Sounds are either stripped down or left far behind and tampered with only to resurface as distortions of their former selves. This is verified by the static-laden drums of album opener, ‘Consideration’. It is simplistic and is the perfect way to open the project, it is her inner-phoenix ejecting from the ashes the music industry has buried her in over the years. Her proclamation of doing things her own way and her fairytale references accompany this depiction of a new musical journey.
After the opening, Rihanna reminisces on past loves and her evident attraction to “bad boys”. On, ‘Kiss It Better’ she longs to rekindle a lost relationship over an Aerosmith-era guitar piece that drives its chorus into a lullaby. Then Boi-1da, ventures into more modern territory with an upbeat radio-friendly instrumental (possibly the only one on the project) that features Drake and Rihanna going back and forth about what I would assume is a fictional relationship and the struggles of opposition. This is followed by a much edgier, ‘Desperado’ that takes after more recent radio fare, think Halsey. It occupies the dark headspace of being truly alone and even worse, feeling alone even when someone is in your presence. Experimentation is most duely noted on Rihanna’s collaboration with one of the headmasters of experimental hip-hop today, Travis Scott. The deep lo-fi bass hits and screechy synths put somewhere we have never really heard Rihanna before.
You know your appeal is something else when you get a persona like DJ Mustard to produce his most interesting and complex production to date. The lofi bass of ‘Needed Me’ is intoxicating when combined with Rihanna remorselessly verifying, “Didn’t you know I was a savage?” It becomes apparent that sexuality is a vice that Rihanna clutches closely. She flips from reminiscing about her longing to pointing out that her men need her just as much and it sounds as certain as it should, given the rest of the album’s subject matter. She sounds reinvigorated with the sound of a little less self doubt. A bit of a falter shows itself by way of the nearly 7-minute ‘Same ‘Ol Mistakes’. Its distant vocals and reimagining of Tame Impala are drawn out past their intrigue and start to sound tired by the four minute mark.
The album comes back together in a more natural sense by the end. It starts to rely more on Rihanna’s voice which is better than ever. A more sombering piano graces Rihanna’s voice on ‘Close To You’, as though the song occupies a church during a morning mass. Her sexuality gives way to a much more neglected emotion, love. Her vocal flutters and tone fluctuations illuminate the mastery she has over her voice and it becomes the most heartfelt and honest song on the project. From distortion to clarity and everywhere else in the middle, Rihanna’s ambition has never been more noticeable. No longer standing in the crowd she stood near the front of for the last decade. Instead, she is playing with a stronger hand of cards and laying them down in a sequence that develops some solid insight to Rihanna the person rather than Rihanna the pop-star.