For that minute when ANTI seemed to be a mirage we’d collectively hallucinated, I wondered if maybe it would be better if Rihanna never released an album again. Not that I didn’t thirst for new Bad Gal bangers. But like anyone else with a pulse and an Instagram account, I had grown accustomed to watching her live — and I mean live — her exquisite life from afar and hoping to absorb even a fraction of her sparkle. Rihanna letting us be privy to it at all felt generous — she’d churned out seven hit records in seven years, time she could have spent doing gun-finger dances on a beach. In the three-plus-year musical hiatus since 2012’s Unapologetic, she claimed a space beyond serial hitmaker: She had become the coolest woman in the world.
There’s a lot of projection going on there — ours, hers. But when it began to sink in, late Wednesday night, that ANTI was concretely here, I sensed a nervous inhale among those who’d grown addicted to Rihanna as imaginary best friend more than singer of songs. This long-awaited album had the potential to puncture the glorious mythos of the Instagram era’s Aphrodite. And then there was a slow exhale, as ANTI gradually confirmed just how its creator felt so ineffably knowable to us all this time, despite being so far away. Like the rest of us, Rihanna lies awake, wondering why you’re not there, and sends that ill-advised 3 a.m. text when she’s too drunk to care how pathetic it looks. If there’s a unifying theme to ANTI, it’s that Rihanna is as lonely as anyone. Yes, this woman whose glow cannot be replicated by Sephora’s best and brightest also longs for things she can’t have and runs the hamster wheel of temporary fixes. Rihanna’s realness was always simply understood, communicated by gut-level swag telepathy. On ANTI, it’s documented, in her own words.
Which, consequently, are rawer and more instinctually graceful than ever. It’s a cruel irony that on “Higher,” a whiskey-soaked two-minute bloodletting (and ANTI’s best song), Rihanna drunkenly sighs at her own ineloquence to someone just out of reach: “And I know I could be more creative / And come up with poetic lines.” From that powerlessness — failing to express exactly what you need to say to the person you most need to say it to — she digs deeper than ever before. And though it may be an accidental byproduct of years of blunt smoke, she’s reached her vocal peak, eight albums in. There is a newfound huskiness to her voice — at times nodding toward Etta James, but mostly toward the wear and tear of existence — that feels cosmically ordained, the perfect aesthetic for her least polished and best album yet.
The long-held consensus that Rihanna is a singles artist with unbalanced albums has been mostly, to this point, true. (Though that seemed to work out just fine for her, seeing as she’s racked up 100 million-plus gold and platinum certifications, an all-time RIAA record.) Though it’s her most cohesive album, ANTI does not completely break this mold. You get the sense that its soulful closing trio, arresting as it may be, was recorded with a different album in mind (the one she described as "timeless" last year, and on which the omitted “Four Five Seconds” would have made more sense). There are moments of tension; “Woo”’s Travis Scott–inspired cacophony scrapes against its surroundings. Still, there is a mood to it all, uniting the forays into drunken doo-wop (“Love on the Brain”) and the Purple Rain–influenced prom jams (“Kiss It Better”) and the Orange-channeling interludes (the maddeningly brief “James Joint,” named for co-writer James Fauntleroy): the feeling of grasping for something that is not there.
And though ANTI lacks the kind of titanic, world-conquering singles we expect of Rihanna albums, don’t believe those who say there are no hits here. “Work,” featuring longtime foil Drake, sends the Barbados native’s patented alchemy of dancehall and American pop soaring into the ether. It’s a weightless riff on the “Sail Away” riddim (which incorporates Alexander O’Neal’s “If You Were Here Tonight,” if “Work”’s wistful synth line sounded familiar) and her best incorporation of patois since “Rude Boy.” And after a 2015 defined by odes to petty debauchery from rap’s reigning antiheroes, “Needed Me” is the instant front-runner for this year’s most biting kiss-off — and the first great one written from a female perspective. “Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?” she snarls, thoroughly unimpressed, over DJ Mustard’s grimmest beat in ages.
ANTI’s once-mysterious title is now clear. It is not intended to broadcast contrived edginess. It is a rejection of the Event Album era — where each release is a bomb drop, a conceptual multimedia extravaganza, a viral emoji — with an anti-Rihanna album. She’s hiding from the club in the bedroom and favoring instinct over smile-and-wave mechanics, even if that means waiting three years and letting no-brainer singles go stale on the shelf. Most of all, it is the antithesis of Rihanna as the unfuckwithable ideal. If its rollout stumbled and barely stuck the landing, all the more apt. If she felt burdened by expectations, it does not show — ANTI is a spiritual topography. Instead of dreaming of escape through the momentum of love, on ANTI she’s asking you to meet her in the dark. It’s way too late and tomorrow’s sunrise will leave tonight’s vulnerabilities exposed, but you still have a few hours to pretend otherwise.