Until the last minute, Rihanna kept the world — including her own management and label, Roc Nation — guessing. As recently as two weeks before releasing her Drake-assisted single “Work” exclusively on Tidal and to radio on Jan. 27, Rihanna, 27, was still in her Malibu home studio putting the finishing touches on Anti, her long-rumored and oft-delayed eighth album and the follow-up to 2012’s chart-topping Unapologetic. Mere hours before “Work” arrived, the album was still being mastered. Following a leak, the album was released as a Tidal streaming exclusive on Jan. 27, with a deluxe version arriving on Jan. 29.
Why so many false starts and 11th-hour nail biters for an artist who, from 2009 to 2012, released a new album every year like clockwork? And what of the $25 million deal with electronics giant Samsung, orchestrated by Roc Nation, to sponsor the album rollout and a subsequent world tour?
Sources say Rihanna runs point on her own career with management along for the ride, but it has been a bumpy one as Anti‘s journey to release has been anything but conventional.
Since 2014, the singer has employed a revolving stable of full-time engineers to work on her tracks and vocals — at a cost of more than $300,000 during the span of 18 months, estimates an insider. With her bedroom conveniently located near the vocal booth, Rihanna would head to the studio in the early afternoon and work through the night often for weeks at a time.
In January 2015, Rihanna released “FourFiveSeconds” with Kanye West and Paul McCartney — her first single in more than a year — and returned with “Bitch Better Have My Money” in March, both of which reached the top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 (“FourFiveSeconds” peaked at No. 4). But her next single, “American Oxygen,” released April 5, fizzled at No. 78 on the chart. It would be the last song she released in 2015.
According to sources, the singer and her Roc Nation team had at that point closed the Samsung deal, initially targeting a June 2015 release with Live Nation exploring summer tour dates. (Reps for Rihanna, Samsung, Roc Nation, Def Jam and Live Nation would not comment.) When the deadline to book the tour arrived and the album wasn’t ready, plans were pushed until September, then delayed again as Rihanna continued recording. But things had seemed to get back on track by October, when she unveiled the album cover, designed by artist Roy Nachum, at a Los Angeles art gallery and announced that the album would be called Anti, leading to rumors that it would finally arrive on Nov. 27 — Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States. November came and went without an album though, which one source chalked up to the record-shattering vortex that swirled around Adele’s 25 when it hit stores on Nov. 20, holding at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for seven straight weeks. Multiple people close to the situation told Billboard that Rihanna was still having trouble selecting her next single. One said the singer had canceled “several” promotional appearances due to the delays and was still in the studio.
The repeated release-date shifts made Samsung anxious, according to one source. With such a big outlay of cash, the company was stuck, holding back on its promotional campaign until Rihanna felt comfortable with the album.
Then, on Nov. 19, Rihanna tweeted the link to AntiDiary.com, a Samsung-powered website accessed on mobile devices that operated as a 3D virtual space with a series of eight rooms, initially locked, that fans could explore to search for “clues.” Four days later, she announced that the Anti World Tour, sponsored by Samsung, would begin Feb. 26 with support from Travis Scott in the United States and Big Sean and The Weeknd in Europe. With or without the album, Samsung’s rollout plan was officially in motion.
Still, there were questions about how Rihanna would release Anti and where it would appear digitally — whether as a Tidal exclusive, only on paid streaming services like Tidal and Apple Music, or on all digital outlets including Spotify with its ad-supported free tier. “Work” arrived as a Tidal exclusive for about an hour before being serviced to Apple Music and the iTunes Store. And Rihanna has a history of withholding her music from Spotify for a period of time after release, a tactic that recently worked for Adele and Coldplay. Rihanna kept Unapologetic off Spotify in 2012 for weeks and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 238,000 in sales, according to Nielsen Music, her best first week ever. Of that number, 58 percent of Unapologetic‘s sales were physical and 42 percent were digital. A digital-only release of Anti, at least at first, cuts into her projected first-week debut.
As for Anti‘s distribution partner Def Jam, her label until Roc Nation signed her to the company directly, the Universal imprint could be in line to receive 11 to 13 percent of revenue in a standard distribution deal (though that number could climb to as much as 24 percent if the deal includes marketing, promotion and publicity). But it has forfeited a holiday sales bump for the traditionally quieter first quarter — one insider estimates that Anti took a 35 percent hit on scans by not coming out on Black Friday.
Regardless, upon rumor of its release, “Work” flew to the top of the Trending 140 chart, which measures Twitter conversation around a particular song title, five hours before the track debuted. “I think it’s obvious the record will fly up the chart with the amount of support it’s already received,” says KKHH Houston program director Charese Fruge. “The popularity of both artists will drive tune-in, sales and streaming.”
Indeed, radio picked up “Work” immediately: Two hours after its release at 8 a.m., Nielsen BDS’ real-time tracking showed the song getting hourly spins on several of iHeartMedia’s top 40, rhythmic and R&B/hip-hop stations, as well as CBS Radio’s top 40 and rhythmic outlets like WBMP (92.3 AMP Radio) New York, which played the record at the top of each hour all day on Jan. 27. And Rihanna’s appearance in a CBS commercial for the Super Bowl and the Grammys seems to foreshadow a performance at the awards show.
Will all the stop-and-start surrounding Anti hinder its chances of hitting No. 1? “It’s a trend,” one major-label executive says about surprise releases, “but one only marquee artists should follow. You’re at a major label to take advantage of all their marketing and sales expertise, and you curtail a lot of that by just putting your album out and saying, ‘Surprise.'”
This article was originally published in the Feb. 6 issue of Billboard.