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).
Twenty-eight in February, Rihanna’s marching headlong into her Saturn Return (which might explain Anti‘s Tame Impala cover “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” from an album influenced by Kevin Parker’s own astrological awakening) and Anti‘s thoughtful self-assessment is natural territory for the age. Particularly resonant is her fatigue towards men, even on Anti low point “Woo,” which sounds like the ’70s prog rock interpretation of a bad trip under blacklight (“I been feening on the yayo,” she sings, “ain’t nothin’ left to talk about”). There’s a half-interested sexual urgency to the album, as she alternately sexes and excoriates her partners; on “Needed Me” she scolds them for catching feelings over a seething DJ Mustard beat—”didn’t I tell you that I was a savage?” she tosses off, characteristically nonchalant. 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, most immersively sensual 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 15 songs of a deeper look into the woman behind the mirror, she dismisses and dares an unnamed dude/her fans 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, she 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–k.