If hip-hop is the new pop culture, then the shiny plasticity of manufactured pop stars is no longer relevant. In this paradigm shift, the phrase ‘real recognise real’ is an important one. Even if you aren’t writing your own lyrics and cooking up your own instrumentals, the product needs to be believable. We’ve witnessed the rebirth of Justin Bieber last year, and One Direction’s Zayn Malik has his sights set on making music that he can actually listen to without cringing.
While Rihanna’s music already has an edge and credibility over the formerly mentioned pop princes, it doesn’t seem like an effortlessly cool 27-year-old who – at least on Instagram – appears to spend the majority of her life smoking weed in tropical locations, really puts ‘SOS’, ‘Don’t Stop The Music’ or ‘Only Girl In The World’ at the top of her playlist. In an interview with MTV News last year she described an urge to move away from making big songs. “I wanted to focus on things that felt real, that felt soulful, that felt forever,” she said. “I want an album that I could perform in 15 years. I find that when I get on stage now, I don’t want to perform a lot of my songs because they don’t feel like me.”
It feels as though, as she searched for that sound, between singles like ‘FourFiveSeconds’, ‘American Oxygen’ and ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ – none of which made the final cut – she managed to create a collection of album cuts. While there is obvious chart appeal in the dancehall flavoured ‘Work’ with its catchy patois hook and quotable Drake feature, and there is certainly legs in tracks like ‘Needed Me’ and ‘Kiss It Better’ to do well commercially, the strength of ‘ANTI’ is that it doesn’t sound like a compilation. While Rihanna has put out great records throughout her career, the focus has always been on singles, and as such full-length listens can feel disjointed. ‘ANTI’ is one that you can vibe to from beginning to end.
It’s the full-length experience that makes ‘ANTI’ such a rebellious move. With singles continually becoming more commercially relevant, Rihanna – who had consistently dropped an LP every November from 2009 to 2012 – chooses to take out three years and craft a smooth, soulful album experience crafted for headphones rather than dancefloors.
Admittedly, the album isn’t as experimental as we’d have liked – the much-discussed Tame Impala cover ‘Same ‘Ol Mistakes’ is karaoke-like imitation rather than reinvention, and the Florence & The Machine-sampling ‘Goodnight Gotham’ interlude feels unnecessary. But from the off, with SZA-assisted opener ‘Consideration’ followed by the James Fauntleroy penned ‘James’ Joint’ interlude, the album sounds more like a trawl through Soundcloud than the pop charts. It’s the final four tracks (before the bonus cuts) that ‘ANTI’ hits its strongest point; the acoustic soul of ‘Never Ending’ to the retro swing of ‘Love On The Brain’ which is perhaps the album’s most exciting vocal performance, before the Bibi Bourelly penned ode to drunken love ‘Higher’ to the beautiful melancholy of piano ballad ‘Close To You’.
While it’s easy to complain that Rihanna could have been a bit more daring, ‘ANTI’ is a bold statement. Whether planned or not, Rihanna ended up giving away one million copies of the album and still managed to reach number one. It might not have had a huge single to push those extra sales, but it feels real, it feels soulful, and it’s a representation of Rihanna that she will hopefully still be proud of 15 years on.
Words: Grant Brydon
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