It feels like an age since Robyn Fenty dropped an album, but perhaps that’s because from 2005 to 2012, she released no less than seven LPs, and then went relatively radio quiet for nearly three and half years. Despite joining the race much later, with ANTI she’s now had more records out than Christina Aguilera, Beyonce or Katy Perry, and is tied with Britney, who had a six year head-start. She deserved that break, as long as the comeback was worthwhile. So let’s see what we’ve got. There’s no ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’. There’s no ‘American Oxygen’ or ‘FourFiveSeconds’. There’s no executive producing by Kanye West; in fact he’s nowhere to be found on the album whatsoever. Just about everything we’d been teased into believing in the lead up to the (let’s call a spade a spade) cluster-fuck of a release has been wrong.
First single ‘Work’ comes equipped with a shape-shifting, low-key production from Boi-1da, and is far and away the most playful and optimistic track on here. Anyone who has already heard Rihanna chant herself into indecipherability on the chorus should be prepared; this is closer to Rated R than the chart-friendly likes of Talk That Talk or Unapologetic. From listen to listen, it swings back and forth between feeling like exactly the album Rihanna had intended for years, before becoming a last-minute release that was shoved out by her backers before she got bored and tried to change the track-listing again.
Part of that comes down to the fact that four of the tracks come in under three minutes, with one at just 72 seconds, sometimes sounding like they’re half-finished but full of potential. Then there’s the cover of Tame Impala’s ‘New Person, Same Ol’ Mistakes’ with very little changes done to the production, just Rihanna’s vocals in place of Kevin Parker on a song that’s barely six months old. Which is then followed by an interpolation of Dido’s ‘Thank You’ on the purely acoustic ‘Never Ending’.
Yet, somehow, for the most part, it works. The chopped-and-screwed dub-step vibe of opening ‘Consideration’ crashes wildly into the barely-there ode to getting high ‘James Joint’, which collides into ‘80s rock-ballad ‘Kiss It Better’, and instead of feeling disjointed and poorly thought-out, there is a little method behind the madness, with some of the highlights including the DJ Mustard produced nervy-glitch fest ‘Needed Me’ or the Timbaland helmed ‘Yeah, I Said It’ which manages to wrap in a shivery looped piano refrain into what is otherwise a heavy-breathing bedroom mood-setter.
Anyone expecting a proper dancefloor-ready banger will be left sorely disappointed; outside of ‘Work’, all you’ve got to choose from is ‘Desperado’, bass-heavy but slow-moving as Rihanna sings about picking a bad boyfriend over the idea of being single. Elsewhere there’s ‘Woo’, which was co-penned by Travis Scott, The-Dream and The Weeknd, and sounds just as dank and moody as that trifecta would suggest, with a two-tone riff that sounds perfectly suited for the grimiest strip club imaginable.
Towards the back-end of the album, things start flying off in every direction imaginable. ‘Love On The Brain’ is an old-school, doo-wop’ish slow-jam, with an out-of-this-world vocal performance by Rihanna, as the topic of a bad lover comes up again – “It beats me black and blue but it fucks me so good / Must be love on the brain.” That vocal work goes off the deep end on ‘Higher’, inviting someone over when she’s had one too many, but thankfully the screeched out love song isn’t around long enough to truly annoy. Things come to an end with ‘Close To You’, looking to be this album’s ‘Stay’, but being a little dull as she pines for the man on the other end of their long-distance relationship.
After all this time, and all the rumours of the album’s direction, perhaps that is the problem with ANTI, feeling like it’s being pulled in too many directions all at once, never fully landing on that bad-gal, feeling-herself, do EVERYTHING bitch that we love Rihanna for being. There will be comparisons to Beyonce’s self-titled album, ditching pop sensibilities for R’n’b experimentalism and let everyone else simply catch up or get out of the way. The thing is though, ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ is pretty much better than everything on here, and if that’s the direction she ditched in favour of this edgy, ballsy but ultimately very uneven soundscape, we can’t help but think what might have been.