Being Rihanna must be exhausting. In America’s estimation of the pop princess — who research agency the NPD Group recently reported to be the most marketable brand spokesperson alive — she exists on the languorous edge of Carefree Black Girlness, all Instagrams from St. Barts, red carpet stunting and relaxed dismissals of thirsty men. For an increasingly frantic three years, however, the run-up to her eighth album, Anti, has been the one crack in her gossamer sheen; the repeated delays, seemingly random single releases 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 behind the scenes, Rihanna’s beautiful life is a beleaguering endeavor, one destined to land a bad gal in a bout of depression now and again. Its muted mood and tempo may be initially disappointing for an artist who has been at the forefront of pop and, often, innovated it; it’s jarring to hear an album that, apart from the ebullient, dancehall-inspired “Work,” comprises low-key B-sides and ballads so directly situated within the hazy, weeded-out 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 her harnessing the moody, intimate sounds for a 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 via her smoke-cracked voice, which vibrates as low and strong as it ever has. “Kiss It Better” is a slinky ’80s ballad disguising a deeply depressing ode to ex sex that’s as lustrous and pained as a Purple Rain single. That album is, in fact, a touchstone throughout Anti: “Love on the Brain” is a doo-wop powerhouse sung in a Prince-adjacent falsetto — and is proof Rihanna has been working with some primo vocal coaches. Her voice on last-call ballad “Higher” is far less effective, however: She strains with the high register as she sings from the perspective of a burdened doyenne halfway through a drunk dial; what is meant to be an emotional effect teeters too far off-pitch (evidence on its own that inebriated voicemails are never a good idea).
Rihanna turns 28 on Feb. 20, so she’s marching headlong into her Saturn Return (which might explain Anti‘s Tame Impala cover “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” a song influenced by frontman Kevin Parker’s own astrological awakening) — Anti‘s thoughtful self-assessment is natural territory for the age. Particularly resonant is her ambivalence toward men, as she alternately sexes and excoriates her partners; on “Needed Me” she scolds them over a seething DJ Mustard beat for catching feelings — “Didn’t I tell you that I was a savage?” she tosses off. One song later, “Yeah, I Said It,” she’s demanding her lovers to “get up inside it … homicide it” on one of Timbaland’s slinkiest bubble-bath beats in years.
Perhaps the most instructive track is “Sex With Me,” which closes out Anti‘s Deluxe version and acts as a perfect denouement for an album meant to combat superhuman misconceptions of the world’s most desirably flawed Bajan badass. After a 15-song-long look into the woman behind the mirror, she dismisses an unnamed dude (or perhaps, her fans), daring him to sink back into the idea of the Fantasy Rihanna with descriptive dirty talk. “Sex with me, so amazing,” she practically grins. “Stay up off my Instagram with your temptation.” And with that, Rihanna recedes back into herself, knowing that we’ll think of her whatever way we want, and even surer in the knowledge that she really does not give a f—.