After putting out an album roughly once a year between 2005 and 2012, Rihanna took an unprecedented three years to put together her eighth LP. Her first album since leaving Def Jam, Anti marks the introduction of a new kind of RiRi, less polished pop star and more swaggering oddball. Fans of smashes like “We Found Love” and “Diamonds” won’t find more of the same gleaming electro-pop. Instead, the album comes closer to Rihanna’s social media persona: full of (relatively) unfiltered DGAF attitude, with a number of eclectic inspirations. For better and for worse, the songs are more than ever driven by her personality, rather than the other way around.
But while this might be Rihanna’s first bid to be understood as an album-oriented (rather than singles-oriented) artist, the scattered nature of the album (which includes everything from ’60s soul to a folk ballad to a Tame Impala cover) makes it hard to generalize about as a whole. So put on your gold headphones, and let’s go through it track by track.
1. “Consideration” (ft. SZA)
A swaggering statement of purpose for post–Def Jam Rihanna, “Consideration” finds Rihanna in full bad gal RiRi mode. Is it a romantic breakup, as the folks over at Genius suspect, or is it about Rihanna’s struggles to take control of her own career? It could be either or both, but I suspect it’s principally the latter. The song opens with a Peter Pan metaphor about being held back from maturing. “I come fluttering in from Neverland,” she sings, “Why will you never let me grow?” (Is that Neverland reference a deliberate echo of Michael Jackson’s arrested development?) But in each chorus she comes out on top, insisting, “I do things my own way, darling.’ ”
That doesn’t mean she does it all on her own. Here, she gets some help in the form of soaring vocals from R&B singer-songwriter SZA, who also co-wrote the song, while longtime collaborator Kuk Harrell co-produces, lifting the bass line from Common’s “Be (Intro).” It’s an appropriate song to sample, since that opener is in some ways a cousin of this one, with both sharing the message of “I just wanna be.”
2. “James Joint”
Though Anti starts out strong with “Consideration,” it briefly dissipates into a marijuana haze with “James Joint.” The one-minute interlude, sung over twinkly keyboards and synth bass, seems to employ the decades-old trick of making you wonder “Is it a love song, or is it just about weed?” The title could even be a triple-entendre: Is James Joint a guy, or is it a song about a marijuana joint, or is the song a James joint because it was co-written with James Fauntleroy?
That said, sometimes interludes like this can work. The other co-writer, Shea Taylor, would know: He co-wrote similarly spacey, psychedelic songs (“Thinking Bout You,” “Pilot Jones”) for Frank Ocean’s interlude-filled Channel Orange.
3. “Kiss It Better”
The top trending track on Twitter when the album came out, “Kiss It Better” is an early fan favorite, and you can count me among its fans. Co-written and co-produced by Jeff Bhasker (“Run This Town,” “All of the Lights”), who knows how to make a song sound huge, “Kiss It Better” is an ’80s power ballad with a mind as dirty as Prince’s. Over booming synths that reminds me of, of all things, Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun, Rihanna pleads for her lover to do what the song title says. What’s “it”? The lyrics leave that open to interpretation, but the song is way too sexual for the plea to be as innocent as a child’s request.
4. “Work” (ft. Drake)
This is the mercilessly repetitive and equally catchy first single off Anti, so if you’re reading this, then chancers are you’ve already heard Rihanna repeat the word “work” a few hundred times already. I still don’t think this is Drake and RiRi’s best collaboration (it’s hard to compete with “What’s My Name?” and “Take Care”), nor is it the best song on the album, but this Boi-1da–produced single is growing on me. One important thing to realize: Unlike most previous Rihanna singles, this one’s appeal is less about the hooks and more about all the vocoder-assisted things that Rihanna does with her voice. (Has Rihanna been listening more to Young Thug?)
Built on what sounds like an interpolation of the backing vocals from Banks’ “Waiting Game,” “Desperado” is an outlaw ballad about trying to run away with a lover. The song’s biggest weakness, though, is that beyond that, there’s not really much story. (“Run away … We could be runaways …” The lyrics go one like that.) The production from Harrell and Jeremih collaborator Mick Schultz (“Birthday Sex”) does a good job establishing a mood, but this runaway ballad doesn’t really go anywhere.
The first vocal you hear over this song’s clanging four-chord beat is from Travis Scott, whose falsetto “wooos” continue throughout the track and probably helped give it its title. But it’s not the only kind of woo-ing going on here. The Hit-Boy–co-produced track (which is also co-written with Travis Scott, The-Dream, and the Weeknd) begins with Rihanna singing jealously to an ex about his new girl, telling him to “Send for me.” But by the end she’s asserted her independence once again: “I don’t even care about you no more,” she sings.
7. “Needed Me”
Another early fan favorite, this one may have “mustard on the beat,” but it doesn’t follow DJ Mustard’s tried-and-true recipe. Instead, with its swirling, airy, atmospheric production and distorted, high-pitched vocal sample, “Needed Me” would have fit right in on Nothing Was the Same. It has more songwriting credits than just about any other song on the album, but it boils down to a simple message, one that reverses stereotypical gender roles: “Don’t get it twisted,” Rihanna tells a man she’s loved and left, “You needed me.”
8. “Yeah, I Said It”
Another bedroom-ready slow jam, “Yeah, I Said It” has Rihanna getting more explicit, demanding rough sex (“I want you to homicide it”) but without asking for any sort of relationship status (“we don’t need a title”). Timbaland co-producers, and the song features the kind of unexpected, 8-bit–sounding bleeps and bloops that also show up elsewhere on the album.
9. “Same Ol’ Mistakes”
Here’s that Tame Impala cover. At 6:37, the slow-builder is even longer than the Australian psychedelic rock band’s original (called “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”), but aside from that, and the lead vocal, it’s nearly identical. That said, Rihanna sounds at least as good on the mic, so—while she doesn’t make the song her own—it’s still a high-profile co-sign for Tame Impala that shouldn’t embarrass anyone.
10. “Never Ending”
The transition from the prog-rocking “Same Ol’ Mistakes” to this acoustic folk ballad is a little jarring. Still, while folk is another sound you wouldn’t expect or even necessarily want from Rihanna, she pulls it off, singing softly and in harmonies over brushed drums and fingerpicked guitars. The refrain, too, wants to keep things simple: “It doesn’t have to feel so strange to be in love again.”
11. “Love on the Brain”
Starting with “Never Ending,” the last four tracks on this album head further and further back into retro sounds, and here Rihanna moves from folk to ’60s soul. Not that “Love on the Brain” sticks strictly to one style. The song seems designed as a showcase for Rihanna’s vocal versatility: She starts out singing high and sweet, then drops into her chest to show off the lower part of her range, and finally powers into some Beyoncé-style belting. She even does a few seconds of what sounds like Frank Valli’s falsetto (listen at 2:12). The point seems to be to underline the theme of swinging back and forth between the highs and lows of love. (The F-bombs, too, help keep the song from sounding too retro; Rihanna may be trying on the sequined costume of a Supreme, but she’s still Rihanna.)
“Higher” continues the ’60s soul theme, but this time the band’s had a few too many drinks. Produced and co-written by No I.D., this brief, two-minute track (almost an interlude) is a sloppy drunk dial in the form of a song: “This whiskey got me feelin’ pretty,” she opens, before wondering, “I hope I ain’t calling too late.” If it sounds like Rihanna is slurring her speech and really reaching when she goes for those higher notes, just know that it’s all in character.
13. “Close to You”
Anti might not have a “We Found Love” or “Umbrella,” but it does have a “Stay.” That vulnerable piano ballad remains one of my favorite Rihanna songs, but this similarly vulnerable, piano-driven torch song—which is likewise about wanting a lover to stay close when he already has one foot out the door—reminds me almost too much of that 2012 smash. Rihanna may be loosening up and trying on some new sounds, but some things stay the same.