Rihanna’s public persona has crested into an icy cool since her last release, “Unapologetic.” Though her arresting ballad “Stay” won the most hearts out of any single on the record, she has been more known for her hot-headed attitude in “B**** Better Have My Money” in recent years.
For her new album, “Anti,” however, the pop star banks on none of her edginess. She instead turns away from her star power by providing none of what’s demanded from a traditional blockbuster pop album: the hits.
Rihanna previously dropped chart-topping jams for four consecutive summers. She and her team then shaped her albums to accompany the style and mood of their respective successful singles.
She eschews her typical process entirely in “Anti.” The record features none of her recent singles, such as “FourFiveSeconds,” her collaboration with Paul McCartney and Kanye West.
Save for the Drake-featuring “Work,” the new songs don’t scan as obvious hits either. While larger-than-life choruses drove many of her hits to the top of her charts, they are mainly absent in the new album.
That said, “Anti” is full of hooks. It’s just harder to recognize them as such compared to her past material. Rihanna isn’t too concerned about that portion of songwriting, at least in the way she was before. She holds raw instinct as first priority, and a memorable part of a song comes more from its emotionally blunt lyrics than its catchiness.
“I never really loved you,” she sings in the chorus of “Woo.” “I never really cared about you.”
Rihanna has sung about her feelings before, of course. However, it’s refreshing for a song to reveal so much heart from the singer, especially after hearing such a stoic version of her on record in recent years.
A lot of “Anti” deals with a severance of a relationship and life post-separation. The pop star tries to find steady footing through a newfound independence. Yet, she lets her damaged heart get the best of her, spewing venom any chance that she could.
The crack in her image points to the true character behind the mask of Rihanna, the celebrity. She hasn’t been this open with her feelings since her 2010 album, “Loud.” Though she continues to paint with broad strokes, her direct honesty makes her conversations about love feel intended for a specific person.
“Anti” is a self-indulgent album by nature — not only from the singer wearing her heart on her sleeve, but also because her production team offers an insular sound outside the trends. Her producers warp the sinister, bass-heavy beat of “B**** Better Have My Money” into something more gritty. The anthems here feel cold as steel compared to the tropical warmth currently flourishing on the pop charts.
As much as it has helped write her most thrilling drama, her self-indulgence has cost the quality of her past two albums. “Unapologetic” especially imploded with its decadent bass drops destroying any life left in the music.
Rihanna gets a handle on excess for the better in “Anti.” She sings unfazed in “Kiss It Better” while producer Jeff Bhasker plays one flamboyant guitar riff. If anything, her unrequited love only intensifies when backed up by Bhasker’s signature electric-guitar sound.
“Woo” also finds the singer’s voice swathed in production. This time her voice gets processed heavily through Auto-Tune, and the result tops the robot howl of the song’s producer Travis Scott in appeal tenfold.
That said, she somehow abandons the effects for the latter third of the album in favor of a more traditional pop sound. An acoustic guitar riff soothes in “Never Ending,” and she returns to the piano for the closing ballad “Close to You.”
“I love in your direction, hoping that the message goes somewhere close to you,” she sings in the latter track.
The last third is equally powerful as the other songs in “Anti,” but the shift in direction still comes as a bit jarring. It sounds unfinished, like she stopped committing to what she set out to do during the final stretch.
On the other hand, the unclear ending may be appropriate considering the narrative that she has written for the album. “Anti” is about the struggle to cut ties with a lover and falling back into the vicious cycle of a rebound. It’s only fair, then, for Rihanna to start the album strong only to find her lost in her ways.