Rihanna has been in uncharted territory for some time. Gone are the days of metronomic annual album release, the last being in 2012. Def Jam, the slick commercial machine that churned out seven albums in seven years, was officially cast aside in 2014. But even before that there was a noticeable shift in her focus.
An erratic jaunt into Hollywood and high-worth, but meandering touring schedules, have replaced new music for more than three years – until now.
Anti has stumbled out of blocks with a leak and subsequent Tidal giveaway, already setting the tone for what is far from a typical Rihanna release. The music reflects the slower pace of the build-up, and this collection noticeably doesn’t have an ‘SOS’ or an ‘Only Girl (In The World)’ to prick up the listeners’ ears.
David Guetta and Calvin Harris’s grubby mitts have obviously been nowhere near it – but is it bad to say we sort of miss them? Come on, ‘Who’s That Chick?’ is a full-on banger by anyone’s reckoning.
What we have instead is a much more brooding offering; often moody and always reflective. Opener ‘Consideration’ is claustrophobic and paranoid, Rihanna lamenting “When I look outside my window I can’t get no peace of mind”.
The lyrics on subsequent interlude ‘James Joint’ may shed a little light on the source of those paranoid musings: “I’d rather be smoking weed, whenever we breathe, every time you kiss me” emerging as the slightly muddled opening line.
Drake turns up on lead single ‘Work’ but it does little to explain why Rihanna thinks collaborating with the much-maligned singer is a good idea. He crashes what could be a decent song with his risible vocal, sapping the momentum from the strong opening third of the album.
Seeking swift redemption, Rihanna unleashes clear standout ‘Desperado’ next. And it really is good. One in her series of outlaw ballads, it’s the most subtle of the group but among the best. ‘Same Ol’ Mistakes’ is probably the least Rihanna-style song Rihanna has ever done - mostly down to the fact it’s a cover of a very recent Tame Impala tune. Floaty synth choruses are carried home by an ethereal vocal that is miles away from the Bajan tones we’re used to. But it works - it’s sometimes disorientating but always engaging.
After that, the album rather limps home. ‘Love on the Brain’ is a disappointing ersatz soul plodder where Rihanna abandons pretty much everything that is good about her in favour of a strangely weak Alicia Keys impression, with a few swear words thrown in. Closer ‘Close To You’ is a charmless piano ballad that outstays its welcome before bringing the record to an underwhelming end.
It’s hard to rate this album against Rihanna’s others when it seems the whole purpose of it is to be at odds with its predecessors. Whether that’s down to the shackles of financial success being thrown off or just a general ennui, it makes it fascinating - but not always satisfying.
Rihanna definitely has a great coming-of-age record in her, and now that her releases are not so mechanical and time-pressured, there’s real hope it could come out in the next few years. But - although it shows promise and points to the right direction for future greatness - Anti leaves the listener, and one suspects the artist, frustrated.