It’s hard to talk about Rihanna’s latest album without discussing the long, seemingly never-ending, rollout that preceded it. I can’t remember an album campaign this confusing, or frustratingly drawn out as this one in my lifetime. And whether you want to believe all of the rumors concerning the singer’s dissatisfaction with various versions of the album or her search for songs to actually put on the album, is entirely up to you.
Buzz singles came and went; “FourFiveSeconds,” “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “American Oxygen” all failed to smash in the same way songs like “Diamonds” and “We Found Love” did. And then there was the confusing ANTiDiARY, a strange mobile/online treasure hunt sponsored by Samsung which was teased at the American Music Awards. But the album itself remained a mystery. Was she going for a Beyoncé style surprise release? Or were the rumors true? Was the album far from finished? Whatever the answer was, Rihanna remained unbothered. In fact, she seemed amused at everyone’s squirming.
As if team Rih was hellbent on continuing the era’s utter sense of confusion, the album leaked unexpectedly on the internet after accidentally being published on the streaming service Tidal. To rub salt in the wound, the leak followed the release of the album’s true lead single “Work” featuring Drake.
ANTi is so much more than its troubled history, however, and it’s a shame that so much of the discussion around it will be reduced to its rollout. This is unlike anything we’ve heard from Rihanna thus far, and is every bit as exciting and thrilling as her past efforts were unmistakably infectious.
“Bitch Better Have My Money” is perhaps the closest released musical relative to this album, but even that song sounds more radio friendly than much of ANTi does. That being said, its trap beats would have felt right at home alongside all 13 tracks here. It’s just a little disappointing the song did not make it to the album, because not only is it truly one of her best songs, but the music video was everything, and to waste such a song is a bit of a head scratcher.
So, does ANTi live up to the hype? Well, that depends. If you were searching for radio ready, club bangers then no it does not. But if you were looking for something completely different from one of the music industry’s most ubiquitous recording artists, then yes it does. This is a Rihanna we have not heard before, and while I’ve noticed some have complained at the amount of ballads present on the album, I don’t think the singer has sounded better, or more authentic than she does here. “Close To You” paints Rihanna’s voice, accompanied by a piano and faint violin arrangement, in an crystalline way that we’ve only heard in “Stay.” It does little to push her vocal limitations, but it doesn’t need to.
“Work” is perhaps the weakest song on the album, and a very curious lead single. Containing perhaps the worst Drake verse known to man, it’s a repetitive, bare, synth-ladden record. I’m sure it’ll get Rihanna the airplay her record label clearly wants after “American Oxygen” disappeared from the Hot 100, but there are better choices on the album. The most obvious one being “Kiss It Better.” Though it doesn’t have a buzzy feature, what it does have is a killer hook and amazing production (that electric guitar?! slay) that may not seem like mindless pop fodder, but would have been a better move.
As for the best song on the album? It’s got to be the Tame Impala cover; “Same Old Mistakes” is perhaps one of the best things Rihanna has ever done. Clocking in at six minutes and four seconds long, it never seems long enough. Her voice perfectly compliments the song’s relaxed, intricate arrangement.
There’s a lot for everyone on ANTi. The album will benefit from growing on listener as time goes on. It’s something that deserves your attention, beyond all of the bad press. It’s a diamond (heh) in the rough. Regardless of how long it took for her to get here, I’m glad Rihanna is back, and better than ever.
***Essential Tracks: “Desperado,” “Kiss It Better,” “Same Old Mistakes,” “Love On The Brain“***