Thursday, January 28, 2016

album review: 'anti' by rihanna

...and here I was thinking that I was going to have to wait a few weeks to talk about a pop record that wasn't coming from Sia. 

And it's funny, it's been a while since I've talked about Rihanna in detail outside of Billboard BREAKDOWN, to the point where you have to wonder how much cultural impact she's left over the course of her last seven albums. Initially she got her start making slick, high-energy dance-pop that was generally pretty damn solid... only for her artistic career to be derailed painfully by Chris Brown in 2009. She was already on a path to make darker music, but things got a lot more bleak and lacking in subtlety over the next few years, with her material becoming paradoxically more sexual and yet more tired and drained. I could write a thinkpiece about how she and her songwriters responded to that horrifying incident, but what would probably end up getting missed is that the music was getting even more hit-and-miss. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to find a single from Rated R onwards that I actually could say I liked all the way through. And if anything they've been getting worse - I could forgive some of her collaborations in 2010 like 'Love The Way You Lie' with Eminem and 'All Of The Lights' with Kanye, but by the time we got 'Birthday Cake' with Chris Brown, I was done... and that was an album before Unapologetic, which was just a turgid slog of a record that featured some of her worst ever songs. 

So I had no problem with Rihanna taking a few years off outside of a few isolated collaborations - she had definitely earned it - but the lead-off singles being released throughout 2015 raised some concerns. I didn't hate 'FourFiveSeconds' with Kanye, but 'Bitch Better Have My Money' was unconvincing dreck, and as I said when it landed on my year end list for the Worst Hit Songs of 2015, I hoped this was not a sign of things to come. Well, it turns out she dropped that song and 'FourFiveSeconds' entirely from ANTi - the long-hyped eighth album that was leaked off of TIDAL, which astounds me because I was under the impression TIDAL was forgotten by everyone a good year or so ago. So of course I was curious, if only to figure out where Rihanna fit in a very different pop landscape from the one she left behind, so what did we get?


Okay, let's establish one thing right out of the gate: that even at her best, Rihanna has never made consistent albums. She's a singles artist who always had a few choice cuts with the rest not being particularly strong, it's one of the reasons her label's choice to flood the market with over six singles per album diluted her brand around the turn of the decade. And the more I've gone through ANTi, the more that appears to be the case... and yet at the same time, this is probably the most I've actually enjoyed a Rihanna record since the late 2000s. Now don't get me wrong, it's still messy, misshapen, and there are definitely your fair share of questionable moments that I'd have been happy to leave on Unapologetic, but there are more songs I outright like here and thematically, it holds together surprisingly well. 

So let's start with the most consistent element across this record: Rihanna herself. I'll give this to her, her vocal delivery manages to avoid both the burned out exhaustion that made her later albums tedious and the off-key shrillness that killed 'Bitch Better Have My Money' for me, and while it's never quite as tight as she was at her best, that's been replaced with a more raw, soulful side that I honestly wish we got more of here. At her best, Rihanna's got a certain expressive charisma that can carry between the sensual interludes like 'James Joint' and 'Yeah I Said It' - both of which easily had enough material to extend across multiple songs - or the more heartfelt album closer 'Close To You', and yet still pull into tracks with more of an edge like 'Desperado' or 'Kiss It Better', both of which benefit from some excellently timed and well-produced multi-tracking. I will say that Rihanna doesn't quite have the pipes for the soulful vocals she tries on 'Love On The Brain' or 'Higher', no matter how raw she sounds, but I'll also say I'd prefer it over the more heavily autotuned or drugged-out slur she uses on 'Work' or 'Woo'. And it doesn't really help there was a fair bit more pitch-correction on this record than I'd otherwise like, specifically for SZA on 'Consideration' when she doesn't need it or for Travi$ Scott's uncredited appearance on 'Woo'... yeah, he might need it, but I'm still not a fan of this guy anyway. And yet even there I'd have to admit her vocals on 'Same Ol' Mistakes', a cover of a Tame Impala song of all things from their last record Currents that has the exact same production... I might like her delivery more than Kevin Parker's on that song!

And what's kind of bizarre is how well that song fits within this record regardless, with the rubbery cascading synths, stalking bass, and lo-fi switch-up mid-song - in other words, the formula that runs through the majority of this record. And yet unlike Unapologetic there's a stronger sense of urgency to this record, mostly because Rihanna's producers bring more of a bite through in more jagged percussion, wiry synth lines, and even some guitars that sneak onto 'Kiss It Better' or the acoustic piece 'Never Ending' that interpolates Dido's 'Thank You' in part of the melody. The funny thing about much of the production on this album is when it does draw more attention to itself, it tends to be because we're only getting a fragment, like the vintage R&B flair of 'James Joint' or the muffled low strings of 'Yeah, I Said It' or the faded glamour of 'Higher' - all of these could have been expanded to more lengthy tracks and the album would have been better for it. And I absolutely love 'Desperado', where Rihanna seems to hop on one of Drake's flows against the sinuous bassy synth against the distant buzzy chorus that still manages to have enough melodic fragments to anchor a memorable track. Of course, then you have the flipside with 'Woo', with the stuttering four-note synth blaring and yet still getting swamped by the heavier bass, sounding just like the Travi$ Scott imitation that it is. And beyond that, there isn't a lot to really say about this production: the majority of it is done to place Rihanna's layered vocals in the best possible light, but beyond that there are only a few melodies that I think would stand out without her. 

So clearly that was done to place the majority of the focus on Rihanna's lyrics and themes, so what is she trying to say with this release? Well, it's a bit tricky to say, mostly because any overarching narrative feels fragmented and the picture of Rihanna herself might be more complex than this record can capably pull off. The framing of this record is kind of fascinating, mostly because Rihanna has long embraced her rough-edged, sexual, 'bad girl' image, and the moments where she plays it up like on 'Desperado' and 'Needed Me' do feel believable, even if in the latter case the instrumental is a bit of a slog with too much pitch-shifting. Hell, even though you could argue 'Kiss It Better' can be inconsiderate as she tells this guy to throw aside his pride and just get back together with her already, it's delivered well enough to actually work. And yet beyond that things get truly intriguing when you start looking into the guys in this picture - mostly because it is established very early on that Rihanna is into bad boys, with many of her flights of fantasy eventually losing their lustre. And it's hard not to see the shadows of her three big 'relationships' looming over this record, mostly because in some way, shape and form all three of them show up! The first is Drake, who actually contributes a long-overdue R&B verse to 'Work' that's the highlight of the song for me, where he tries to apologize for his distance... and yet you get the impression that Rihanna is plenty capable of leaving Drake behind. The next is Travi$ Scott, and that if anything feels more abortive: a coked out fling for all the wrong reasons that where he may have needed her far more than the other way around. 

But just like Unapologetic did - albeit a lot worse with a lot less subtlety - eventually the picture returns to Chris Brown, where it becomes very clear there are a lot of complicated, unresolved feelings there that seem to start with 'Same Ol' Mistakes', where even she seems to realize any attempt to turn over a new leaf with him would be a bad idea through her backing vocals. And yet you get the song 'Love On The Brain', which features what sounds like Chris Brown's backing vocals and an obvious reference to one of his old songs and imagery equating love with violence in too many ways... yeah, for as soulful as it tries to be, it's still not exactly a comfortable listen, especially considering the context is that her love is ultimately enough to make it work. And yet just as this album seems about to dissolve into a mess of horrible implications, it swerves with the final two songs, the first a drunk dial trying for a hookup, and the final a song where the guy actively pushes her away out of fear and leaves her alone, just wanting to be close to him. It's an oddly sombre note to end the record, and I'm honestly conflicted on how well it might work. On the one hand, the framing is a complete nightmare, especially when placed in the context of real world events - Rihanna goes for bad guys for the wrong reasons and yet when it's the worst of them he's the one who pushes her away and we're supposed to feel sad about it - but on the other hand, the framing is at least honest enough to know that what Rihanna's doing isn't normal and that she might not be in the best state of mind... and at the end of the day, there isn't really a happy ending, which I can respect.

So in the end... man, I'm torn on this album. Is it her best, most fully formed album in years? Absolutely. But does it hold up beyond that? Honestly, it's tough to say - good performances but hit-and-miss production, reasonably well-framed lyrics that tell a conflicted, messed up story that I can't help but feel is a few too many shades away from having real nuance. So for me I'm giving it a strong 6/10, but I definitely recommend you all check this out regardless - it's certainly more thought-provoking than I'd ever expect a Rihanna record to be, and I imagine there's going to be a lot of fascinating interpretations of the themes and arc of this album. And if this is Rihanna coming back and dealing with her baggage... it's about as good as we could have hoped for, folks, I'd take it.

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