Being Rihanna must be exhausting. In America's estimation of the pop princess -- who was recently reported by research agency the NPD Group to be the most marketable brand spokesperson alive -- she exists on the languorous edge of Carefree Black Girlness, all Instagrams from Saint Barts and red carpet stunting and relaxed dismissals of thirsty men pretending to know her. For an increasingly frantic three years, however, Anti has been the one crack in her gossamer sheen; the album's repeated delays, scrapped collabos, seemingly random singles release schedule and eventual leak wouldn't bode well for any artist, even one of the most iconic of her generation. And indeed, the end product reveals that no matter how blessed we think Rihanna is, there's something darker lurking beneath. As the album art denotes: heavy lies the crown.
Anti is evidence that being America's foremost Carefree Black Girl is a beleaguering endeavor, one destined to land a badgal in a bout of depression now and again (particularly when she's fielding so many tired-ass males who wish to wife the presently unwifeable). Its muted mood and tempo may be initially disappointing for an artist who's been at the forefront of pop and, often, innovated it; it's jarring to hear an album that, apart from the ebullient, dancehall-alluding "Work," is comprised of lowkey B-sides and ballads so directly situated within the weeded-out, hazy spectrum of rap and alt-R&B already overpopulated by lesser artists, from Jhené Aiko to Rihanna’s rumored lover Travis Scott. A closer listen, though, shows Rihanna harnessing the moody, intimate sounds for a novel purpose: to open up and let us peer into how complicated her adult life has become.
From the first bars of "Consideration," a loping, patois pop number with SZA, Rihanna asserts that she's through with acting as the world's avatar, asking, "Darling, would you mind giving my reflection a break from the pain it's feeling now?" It's a plucky thesis that delivers as the album's stony layers peel back, often alluding to tumultuous relationships with her smoke-cracked voice vibrating low and strong as it's ever been. "Kiss It Better" is a slinky '80s ballad that disguises a deeply depressing ode to ex sex as lustrous and pained as a Purple Rain single. That album is, in fact, a clear touchstone throughout Anti: The conversational "Love on the Brain" is a doo-wop powerhouse sung in a Prince-adjacent falsetto — and is proof Rihanna’s been working with some primo vocal coaches. The vocal on the last-call ballad "Higher," which seems to be an early fan favorite, is far less effective, however: Rihanna strains into the high register as she sings from the perspective of a burdened doyenne halfway through a drunk dial; what she means as an emotional effect teeters too far off-pitch (evidence on its own that inebriated voicemails are never a good idea).