What a strange album release this has been. We’ve waited since 2013 for a new Rihanna record, with the release date put back time and again, and then last night it was reportedly uploaded to Tidal by mistake. It was removed, the re-uploaded. Even if you don’t subscribe to Tidal you can have it for free, as Rihanna tweeted a link to a download. Sounds like a good way to throw away loads and loads of sweet moolah, though Anti has been bankrolled by Samsung to the tune of $25m.
The record was preceded by the Drake-featuring single ‘Work’, which was also released on Wednesday and received a mixed response on social media. The album is likely to be equally divisive, featuring none of last year’s hit singles (such as ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ and the Paul McCartney and Kanye West-featuring ‘FourFiveSeconds’) and often seeming more like a low-key mixtape than of the most-anticipated records of the last few years. Still, there are moments of brilliance, which we’ll explore in NME’s first-listen track-by-track review.
‘Consideration’ ft. Sza
This is such a strong start. The pounding percussion and Rihanna’s confident flow, leaning a little more heavily than usual on her Barbadian accent, immediately arrests your attention. It’s languid but assured, and that’s before neo-soul singer Sza’s otherworldly, Kate Bush-style vocals bob and weave around the beat. Also features Rihanna offering the excellent lyric: “Let me cover your shit in glitter.”
At just over a minute long, this is more like an interlude than an actual song, though the jazzy keyboard – like something you might expect from Frank Ocean – would earn its place on something more substantial. It’s basically just keyboard and vocals, with Rihanna crooning romantic lines such as, “Don’t know why / Just know I love you.” Even though it could be fleshed out more, ‘James Joint’ doesn’t feel undercooked – it’s short and sweet and, above all, quietly confident.
‘Kiss It Better’
What’s the last thing you expect from Rihanna? That’s right, ‘80s power ballad guitar solos. Yet that’s what opens track three, which details an irresistible relationship that Rihanna knows is destructive but concludes, “Who cares when it feels like crack?” Sounds a solid argument to us. Anyway, this is one of the album’s best and most full-bodied tracks, replete with snaking synths and two swooning, overlapping vocal refrains.
‘Work’ ft. Drake
Released before Anti, this wasn’t an especially promising single, hooked around the dumb repetition of the word ‘Work’ – surely trolling, since we’ve been waiting for Riri to finish this thing since our ancestors were in the workhouse – and an underwritten chorus. Even Drake’s verse makes little impact. Certainly it’s no ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, but in context that actually makes sense. Here’s where it clicks that Anti is leaning on a playful mixtape vibe. Listen to way she slurs the chorus into nonsense words towards the end. She’s having fun with nothing to prove.
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Brooding and tense, with a buzzy bassline and ghostly backing vocals, this is as strong as ‘Kiss It Better.’ The lyrics subvert to idea of lovers on the run – instead of running away with them, Rihanna run towards her beau (who sounds like a bit of a shit), admitting: “There ain’t nothing for me here any more / But I don’t wanna be alone.”
It’s genuinely unbelievable that it took eight people to write this track. It’s even more unbelievable that one of those writers is The Weeknd, a man who’s no stranger to a compelling R&B hook. ‘Woo’ begins with two jarring, atonal guitar chords repeated over and over – initially an appealing prospect, in-keeping with the general sense that this is Rihanna ditching appeals to mainstream success. Yet besides some tinny, trap-influenced percussion, little is layered on that riff. It’s spread so thinly over four minutes that, by the end, it feels lumbering.
After an exciting start, this is where Anti’s unevenness becomes pronounced. With seven tracks to go. The lyrics find Rihanna on typically defiant form – which is exactly what we want and expect from her – as she coolly intones: “Don’t get it twisted / You was just another nigga on a hitlist… Didn’t I tell you I was savage?” There’s compelling menace in buzzing, grinding bassline at the midway point, but otherwise this is airy, forgettable R&B that’s not quite worthy of Rihanna.
‘Yeah, I Said It’
As with the last song, there are moments of brilliance here. The minimalist piano refrain, which loops throughout, is cold as fuck, bringing to mind Drake and Future’s mixtape ‘What A Time To Be Alive’ – a record that dealt with the cold-blooded luxury of wealth. Yet there’s so little else going on (except some admittedly cool bleeping sounds) that ‘Yeah, I Said It’ passes with making much of an impression and may be Anti’s weakest track.
‘Same Old Mistakes’
What a strange thing this is. Rihanna covers ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ by Australian psych-rockers Tame Impala, adding 30 seconds to its running time, beefing up the bouncing bassline and bringing the chiming synths higher in the mix. Let’s just say it: this is better than the original. The vocals are airy and echoing (“Feel like a brand new person”) but are underpinned by enough bass and percussion that the track feels much more substantial than the likes of ‘Needed Me’. The whole thing is stripped back to guitar, vocals and percussion at the bridge, which sounds like the song is sliding sideways, before everything blends together again: swooning psychedelia, bassy hip-hop and Rihanna crooning, “Stop thinking you’re the only option.” Weird in a good way.
That excellently odd moment is followed by an acoustic guitar ballad that could have been sung by almost anyone in the last decade. It does feature the affecting line “I knew your face once but now it’s unclear” and the song isn’t bad – admirably evading a slip into mawkishness – but it sits quite uncomfortably on such an unusual and, at times, forward-thinking album.
‘Love On The Brain’
Oh yes, on the subject of Anti being unusual – here’s Rihanna’s ‘50s doowop-inspired ballad, ‘Love On The Brain’. It’s totally brilliant, with the singer showcasing the kind of vocals we’ve not heard from her before, oscillating between her trademark snarl, Mariah Carey high notes and soaring Beyonce-style vocal acrobatics. It’s like three performances in one. The rolling organ and romantic string arrangements are offset by the dark-as-fuck lyrics, which seem to be Rihanna’s ode to a violent lover (which of course make you think of her being assaulted by Chris brown in 2009): “It beats me black and blue but it fucks me so good / Must be love on the brain.” Essentially this is The Crystals’ ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)’ for 2016.
This is a straight-up love song, with a Rihanna inviting her lover over while admitting she’s been on the sauce. “I know I could be more creative and think of poetic lines,” she sings, “but I’m turnt up on siz’ and I love you.” There’s tinkling piano and elegiac piano, but what really stands out is Rihanna’s smoking, soaring vocal, which might be one of those most beautiful and romantic things she’s put to record.
‘Close to You’
After that high point, Anti reminds us of its uneven second half with a soft, plaintive piano ballad. The piano plods along, not making much of a footprint, and Rihanna seems to pine for a long-distance lover (it’s not all that convincing – she’s more interesting with attitude). And then it sort of peters out. It’s a characteristically odd place to end an inconsistent album that does, on balance, have more strengths than weaknesses.