After an accidental leak last week, Rihanna’s long-awaited eighth studio album ANTI dropped on music streaming service Tidal, going platinum within just 24 hours. It’s been more than three years since the release of Unapologetic, her seventh album in eight years, and perhaps that is why this newest offering is uncharacteristically thoughtful and considered. Rihanna’s real strength has always been with her singles – ballsy power ballads or catchy chart-toppers – yet ANTI doesn’t have the incoherence of her previous albums. Instead the track-list feels carefully constructed, a listening experience rather than a disorganised collection of could-be hits.
What stands out first is an unexpected lightness. The instrumentation is noticeably sparse throughout, as each track relies on Rihanna’s vocal strength to do the legwork. The result is intensely personal – without any heavy backing the emotion in her voice resonates clearly. The album itself is very light: with only thirteen tracks, and all three of her recent singles conspicuously absent, ANTI feels almost more like a mixtape than a full studio album. Importantly, ANTI is not about flashy hits – in fact none of the tracks really stand out as a potential single. There is no attempt to follow the commercial success of its predecessors by padding out the hits with beige fillers. ANTI is more original: in allowing her to be herself we earn a rare glimpse of Rihanna’s untainted emotions.
ANTI opens with “Consideration”, an obvious anthem to new beginnings. We’ve barely reached the end of the first verse when we hear Rihanna announcing “I got to do things my own way darling” – an indication of what’s to come. She stays strong with a quirky ode to marijuana (“James Joint”) and the soulful “Love on the Brain” which, despite the worrying lyric “it beats me black and blue but…I can’t get enough”, is undoubtedly the standout track on the album. The first single is “Work”, Rihanna’s third collaboration with on-off partner Drake. It’s relaxed and fun, and the hook is catchy, but compared with their previous efforts the track is vaguely disappointing. The pairing seems tired, and the track comes off as a lazy attempt to recreate the excitement surrounding their original material. Closing with “Higher”, a love song which ends unfinished after only a minute, and “Close to You”, a beautifully bittersweet ballad, Rihanna ends the album at her most vulnerable.
The album is not without its weaknesses: “Never Ending” is more Princess of China than American Oxygen, a song named “Woo” was destined to be disappointing, and any loyal fans looking for classic smash hits reminiscent of 2012’s Pour it Up or Stay are likely to be underwhelmed. But for those without great expectations, ANTI is a surprisingly good listen: it allows Rihanna not only to showcase her impressive vocal talent but also to explore new directions and grow as an artist, and the result is an intimacy we don’t often see.