Rihanna 'ANTI' Album Review: Junk Mail
Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Middleton, John Gonzalez and Lindsay Haddox chat about Rihanna's new album, ANTI.
Carolyn Menyes: Rihanna has spent a lot of time over the last three years convincing us she doesn't care about the release of her new album ANTI. To go in to the delays, rewrites and multiple failed release dates this album has had all while RiRi goes on luxurious weed-filled vacations would take us 1500 words alone. For an artist who once consistently released a new LP every November, three years fills like a lifetime. The result has to be epic, especially in the world of cyclical and unforgiving pop music.
Instead, in a way, Rihanna still doesn't really seem to give off an air of caring on ANTI. To me, Rihanna has always been an artist who has banger singles and filler on her albums, but this album actually feels like a cohesive work. It was hard, in a way, to understand why she released "Work" as the debut single, but now it makes sense -- it's the closest thing we have on here to "signature Rihanna," and that's saying a lot, because "Work" is filled with an IDGAF attitude. Just listen to her patois and enunciation. I feel like, in a way, this is the first album we got where I actually understand who Rihanna may actually be. What do you guys think?
John Gonzalez: Few build-ups have been as big as ANTI, so pressure was on for Rihanna to deliver something worth the wait. I have to say I'm still really torn. In many ways it feels incomplete. It's been a year since "FourFiveSeconds" and the events of the last 12 months seem to play out with great accuracy over the album's 13 tracks. From its promising and confident beginning, to its dark and confusing middle section, right up to its cliffhanger like conclusion.
For those of us able to block out this album's overwhelmingly large build up, ANTI is a solid listen. It's true that in the three years since Unapologetic, Rihanna could have put out three albums, but ANTI almost feels like a three act effort. Opener "Consideration" kicks off the albums strongest third. Rihanna and SZA are a match made in swag heaven, trading off verses almost as easily as they switch in and out of falsetto. "James Joint" is a playful ode to frequent collaborator James Fauntleroy, chock full of his signature nuances. "Kiss It Better" doesn't live up to the hype songwriter Glass John created during his Twitter rant last year, but it's a strong song with some serious single potential. And "Work" just works, in all its gibberish filled madness. What happens after is a bit of a bumpy ride for me. "Needed Me" saves the albums second act, while "Love On the Brain" and "Higher" allude to what could have possibly been an entirely different album all together. A better one too.
Ultimately the whole project comes across a bit half-baked to me. It has this air of "let's just get it over with" that makes it a bit hard to enjoy. If cohesive is a new term for "single-less", then sure ANTI is cohesive.
Lindsay Haddox: I like how John pointed out that the album was a three act effort because after listening to it and re-listening, I felt much of the same way. We don't have any big Rihanna singles on this album that we have been used to getting over the years, but let's not forget that she has had non-banger singles that have gone on to be quite successful, "California King Bed" for example. ANTI feels very incomplete but complete at the same time and I think it has something to do with the three act kind of thing that Rihanna did with this album, it feels as if she could have made three different albums with the different types of music she has on here. From "Never Ending" to the album closer "Close to You" sound extremely different from the beginning and middle of Anti.
I'm having a hard time figuring out how I really feel about Anti mainly because I do feel that many of these songs could have been put on different albums instead of throwing them onto one to just try and get it out. I do give Riri credit for doing her own thing on this album even if it was a totally botched released and in my own opinion only delivered an album that was not up to par because I feel that how it's all been put together is all over the place. There are some really great songs on here that she sounds less like the "Work" Rihanna and more cohesive like on "Love on the Brain" which in my opinion is one of the best songs on the whole thing. In general I'm a fan of the act three of Anti and really feel that's where she showcases her talents the most.
Ryan Middleton: The past is the best indication of the future right? Well everyone was hoping for an album of bangers after three singles that never really hit the way we expect from Rihanna. However the writing was on the wall with "American Oxygen," "FourFiveSeconds" and the album title Anti, which should have been a giveaway this album was going to be the anti-Rihanna album. But in being a anti-Rihanna album, it seems as though this is all part of a re-branding effort to make her more of a complete, serious artist who is album to put out complete albums instead of singles with fillers packed in around them.
There is "Work" with all of its incoherent "rer rer rer rer"s that somehow works and went to No. 1 on iTunes in 70 countries, but the rest attempts to try and be more of a hitless album. This attempt is admirable for Rihanna who has sold over 100 million singles and counting, but the execution is a bit scattered and disorganized. She could have taken a page from Kevin Parker and Tame Impala's book on album writing and put more conviction behind a more cohesive idea.
CM: What I'm gathering from ANTI is that Rihanna seems to want to be seen as a serious #artist with the sort of critical acclaim of your Tame Impalas. But, at her essence, Rihanna isn't a serious artist, and that is OK! We need someone to give us club hits and pop classics, and few artists in the modern era have done that more successfully than Rihanna. "Umbrella," "We Found Love" and "Pour It Up" (to name a few) have almost redefined pop music upon their release, and in a singles era, perhaps that is what Rihanna was going with here -- but full efforts were never her forte.
Like you, John, I am torn on ANTI. In some ways, I can see the "let's just release this" side of the album -- with the exception of "Higher" and maybe "Woo," Rihanna's delivery on this album is particularly lazy, and she allows the music to overwhelm her. "Desperado" is the prime example of this -- the song is lyrically gripping "I don't want to be alone," she sings, but she sounds as if she couldn't care less about whether or not she's rolling solo. It's hard to separate this album from its rollout, but with all those late night studio sessions and vacations and delays in mind, it's hard not to imagine Rihanna just phoning it in so she can go back to a yacht in St. Barts.
With that in mind, maybe I am excusing a lack of a standout track for cohesiveness, but I do think that the dark, distorted production on this album is successful and I do get a sense of a common musical theme her, which is very Tame Impala of her. If Rihanna was looking to release the antithesis of her previous work, well, she did it and this album is successful on that level. I offer up credit for that. Rihanna is used to party hard Thirsty Thursday albums. This record is like a lazy Saturday afternoon spent with lotsa Mary Jane.
JG: It's very obvious that Rihanna is looking for THAT album. The last time she attempted this resulted in the much more cohesive and equally moody Rated R. There she let the likes of James Fauntleroy and Justin Timberlake take the reins, and the result was much better. On ANTI, there doesn't seem to be that same level of guidance, and as a result it just feels disjointed.
Let's address the albums middle half. I actually enjoy "Desperado", it has that moody soundtrack pop allure to it that helped make stars out of the Weeknd and Lana Del Rey. But left alone with no supporting tracks it feels out of place. Especially when placed behind "Woo", which feels like the musical equivalent of a monkey wrench. Travis Scott was rumored to have more influence on this album but I'm glad only one song really shows it. It seems to scape against its neighboring tracks. "Needed Me" is great, but "Yeah, I Said It" was too sleepy for this part of the album. By the time we get to the Tame Impala cover you're in a confused drowsy haze that's hard to shake.
I will say that these are some of her strongest vocals to date. Rihanna's voice has always had an energy to it so even on the sleepier records she's present in a way few others could be. She tears though different twangs easily with such comfort. Her vocals are worn from years of smoking but it's given her a growl that is reminiscent of Amy Winehouse. If I give her credit for anything it's that when she did show up between vacationing to record, she was present.
Going back to something Lindsay mentioned, this doesn't feel so much as an anti-Rihanna album as it does a highlight reel of some of her better album work. Majority of these songs could have easily been fillers for Talk That Talk or Unapologetic. Even "Yeah I Said It" feels like a direct sequel to Loud's "Skin."
LH: I think the reason I am having a harder time being able to understand Anti is due to the fact that it is all over the place. This whole thing to me feels very unnecessary. Long before our three year wait for Anti, we saw Rihanna doing things that she wasn't doing when she was the pop princess that released "Pon de Replay" so I feel that this shouldn't have been some type of coming back in a different way album. I think this would have been better she had taken one idea and formed her entire record on it and that's not what happened.
Rihanna is lucky enough that many of these will definitely see radio play. As much as she does not want to make an album full of singles it feels that many of them will get the EDM remix or as she has done before get a rapper to through a verse on one of them. When you take a deeper look into Anti it is full of "bangers" just different ones than we have seen Rihanna do before and there's nothing wrong with that because we need someone like her making music so we can all throw it on at parties and clubs.
RM: I will echo your sentiment on her vocals John, they do sound like her strongest to date, but in trying that she exposed her weakness as a singer even further. She sounds solid on the ballad "Higher," but in the months after Adele's 25, the public is reminded what a very, very strong singer can sound like on a record like that. It isn't to say we shouldn't applaud her for going for it, but there is something to be said for knowing your strengths and weaknesses. She was always more of an artist who had the drive to conquer pop music -- which she did, than a technical singer.
It makes sense for her to do an album like this now. She is super wealthy, incredibly successful and has branched out into fashion and film. Singing pop banger after pop banger can get old even for the most established stars.
Like most major releases, the last half have the most experimental cuts like the bonus instrumental cut "Goodnight Gotham" with its booming drums and distorted vocals. "Love On The Brain" was the most interesting of these cuts. Her raspy voice fits the bluesy, soulful instrumental surprisingly well as opposed to the disparate, hazy R&B cuts scattered around the album.
CM: I really don't know if these are Rihanna's best vocals to date -- on half of the record, he delivery is so lazy that I just get lost in it. She vocally picks up on the second half of the album, but nothing blows me away except for "Higher." Rihanna is not technical, and that is more than OK, but I also don't think she taps enough in to the emotional aspects of her lyrics to make up the difference. Something like album closer "Close to You" should and could be incredibly gripping, but I don't feel a lot of commitment from Rihanna here. Look to someone like Demi Lovato, that's a chick who can really commit and make you feel something. Rihanna just sounds (and makes me) bored.
Do you really think this album has a lot of radio potential? I've already heard "Work" bumping from cars and windowsills in my neighborhood, so that one feels guaranteed, but everything else sounds like a third or fourth single. "Love on the Brain," "Woo," "Kiss It Better" all have potential but each song feels like it has one element missing.
I don't think this album is as uneven as the rest of you do, and I'll maintain that it flows well together even if it can get a bit sluggish (which I will blame the Tame Impala cover on). But, because of that, there's no standout here to take over the airwaves. Certainly, there's no "Diamonds" or "Stay," like we had on Unapologetic.
JG: "Consideration" and "Needed Me" have massive radio appeal in the urban market, while "Kiss It Better" is the only real pop contender after "Work." If they are truly looking to go the ANTI-Rihanna approach they will probably refrain for a big single roll-out and opt more for a gradual visual roll-out like Tinashe or Dawn Richard does, seeing as the only thing that can save some of these sleepers are the right visuals. I chalked the "lazier" vocals up as her channeling some kind of swag. I'm sure that was just the Rihanna fan in me.
It's interesting you bring up Demi Lovato because unlike Rihanna her last album was full of singles and was equally, if not more, boring. Clearly Rihanna is ahead of the curve a bit realizing the usual "grab every hit you can find" formula is on its way out. It's just a bummer she didn't fully stick to the idea of pulling real content, instead opting for a couple of slow burners to fill out what was initially a promising roaster of songs. This project plays like a weird mix of Miley Cyrus' Dead Petz project and Drake's If You're Reading This Its Too Late, which is sad because neither of those are really considered albums by their artist.
LH: I'm on the "Consideration" as what I'm thinking is her next single. It's also got SZA on it who's pretty popular right now and not only does it sound good it's pretty catchy and I could hear it being played everywhere. It's also a good follow up to "Work" with the same type of vibe it gives away. A part of me feels that "Woo" also has potential to be a single, definitely not her next one but definitely will somehow be one and have radio appeal in the urban market.
Although I'm not Riri's No. 1 fan and after listening to this album multiple times I cannot say I expected anything different. Referring back to Carolyn speaking about all of the trips she takes and has been on this very chill vibe it feels like that's the route this album took. It's not a bad thing that this is not the "We Found Love" it's just this is where Rihanna is at right now and that is what is inspiring her music, so in that way I give her props to doing her own thing even if it isn't the best thing she has done. Bad Girl Riri is still young, so it will be interesting to see what comes after this and to see what she will do with album itself.
RM: It is true that beyond "Work" there aren't many obvious radio singles. With this album I think she is reveling in doing things different. She may have gotten a little too cute with the release, trying to balance the desires of commercial interests that do not move quickly and her own creative intuition that has changed over the past three years.
"Consideration" could be one if they wanted to throw out the playbook and really represent the rebellious side of this LP, which she states very plainly in the hook "I got to do things my own way darling
/ Will you ever let me / Will you ever respect me? No / Do things my own way darling / You should just let me / Why you ain't ever let me grow?" This could double about a man and the industry.
The Tame Impala cover really felt unnecessary and made me just want to go listen to Currents. This embodied the disparate nature of the album when there was a lot of potential to put out a complete LP. The love stories feel more personal this time instead of the over-the-the-top nature of tracks like "S&M." She has always been bad girl RiRi, but it is a more mature bad girl who wants to be seen for more than just a pop hit maker.
RM: Rihanna switched things up on Anti, putting together an album that will force the listener to tune in from start to finish. This isn't the hit-maker Rihanna we have come to know over the years, but instead is a much different type of album that experiments and draws upon hazy production and more soulful influences. Her intentions were good, but the execution felt a little lazy and scatterbrained for someone who has such a machine behind her. If she wants to be taken seriously as an artist, this new direction will have to bear more fruit with interesting videos and creative roll outs for future projects.
LH: Anti's roll out was all over the place and you cannot say that the album is much different. We have been saying it the whole time in different ways, but she really has created so many hits that she doesn't necessarily need to continue to make albums that has single after single. Rihanna's fans will love what she has done and with her success that's really all that matters to her. This album most definitely showcases her lack of care about how this all played out and what her audience got.
JG: On her eighth album Rihanna does something she's never musically done before: relax. After seven years and seven albums of consumer ready-hit laden albums, pop's bad gal was ready to fully live up to her billing and create an era that ignored all the rules. However, life clearly got in the way and after three years of enjoying her successes, Rihanna phoned in an album that told her truth in a way I don't even think she wasn't expecting. She's a superstar who no longer has anything to prove, which is clearly displayed on ANTI. Still, at her most uninterested she manages to pull together a handful of gems and deliver them in a way that's powerful and promising albeit disheartening. This could have been an amazing album, or three amazing albums but it seems she just didn't care.
CM: Rihanna seems to be entering an experimental phase in her discography, moving away from that churn-out-a-single market and in to what could be her true artisty. Rihanna likes to chill, vacation and smoke weed, and we heard that plenty on ANTI, which brings me back to my original point. I didn't always buy that "Diamonds" or "Pon de Replay" was the type of song Rihanna wanted to put out, but I buy that ANTI is actually her music and her project. Is this album a little disappointing after a three-year wait? Sure. But, that makes me think this wasn't just thrown together, even if Rihanna wants us to hear otherwise.