The Black Album, Jay Z’s 2003 faux swan song to the music industry, was originally conceived as a very different project. No marketing push, no radio-friendly singles and no fancy album covers, the project would thrive on its own artist merit. Of course, when you’re a big name star, you have big demands that can derail your best laid plans. This hasn’t stopped many a popular artist from delving into their alternative or dark sides. Kanye West’s career has thrived on such projects, most notably Yeezus, which polarized fans and critics. Similarly, Beyoncé’s self-titled album, which dropped out of nowhere late one Thursday night, allowed her to express herself as an artist with the privilege that legions of fans would still support her regardless. With that said, it’s long past due for Rihanna to be the latest Roc Nation-associated artist to try their hand at the ever elusive “black project” with ANTI.
At one point one would have figured the title of Rihanna’s eighth album, ANTI, referred to all the anticipation for the much-delayed project. In truth, it was just anti what we’ve come to expect from the Bajan sensation. Sure, there are the same genre-bending sounds, including pop, EDM, reggae, dubstep and R&B. However, she’s slowed down the tempo a bit and produced far less songs ready-made for the Billboard Hot 100 and gone for a more alternative vibe. The project is almost anti-radio, except for the first “official” single, “Work,” featuring Drake. The reggae dubstep fusion of “Work” will keep the clubs and basement Caribbean parties jumping.
The album starts off with “Consideration” featuring SZA, which sounds like a mid-’90s rap song with its sparse boom-bap drum and bass production. On the chorus, Rihanna gives us the mission statement for the album: “Do things my own way, darling / You should just let me / Why you ain’t ever let me grow?” Next up is the previously leaked 4/20 anthem, “James Joint.” The song returns just as lush, enchanting and ludicrously short as when it first surfaced in April 2015. While it deserves to be more than a glorified interlude, it serves as a great introduction to the next song “Kiss it Better,” an ’80s rock ballad in the vein of Prince. Then there’s the Tame Impala cover “Same Old Mistakes.” Its straight remake of the original, with Rihanna’s seductive lithe vocals bringing a new energy to the track. It’s hard to make out the words of either version, but when you lay back and bathe in the psychedelic vibes of this sound bed, it really doesn’t matter.
While Rihanna’s voice has improved between albums, there are times where she needs a bit more practice. Her unique tenor adds charm to the drunk ballad “Higher,” but is supremely lacking on the doo-wop track “Love On the Brain.” In addition, the album has a habit of wallowing in its dark themes. Though we appreciate the vulnerability that Rihanna shows throughout most of the album, with lyrics that can be haunting and poignant, the tough love and rough sex get old, muddied and overbearing as torrid bass lines start to blend together. While the attempt to make timeless music is obvious, it is hindered by subject matter that has more depth than breadth.
Of the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, “Goodnight Gotham” is the strongest, bringing to mind a harsh, maniac-at-the-door Gregorian chant sound bed. Unfortunately, it’s just an interlude and not a full song. “Pose” lacks not only substance but the style and energy that Riri brought to similar songs on past albums. Finally, “Sex With Me” is quite frankly, beneath an artist of Rihanna’s stature.
In truth, ANTI is a grower. By now, we’re used to hearing sexually explicit pop tunes from the RiRi. The brooding, somewhat boho, weed-smoking vibe of infinite lust, sadness and redemption can be a bit much when you just want to party and bulls**t. But sometimes, an artist wants to be an artist. Fair-weather fans will probably bypass this for the next club thumper from another PYT. Her Rihanna Navy will somewhat love it, though many will never admit they hate it. Will the album stand the test of time? Who knows. However, it will definitely be a standout for the bold and ambitious young woman taking a risk to not only be more creative but to grow and mature instead of giving us another recyclable, interchangeable and disposable pop record.