Rihanna, Rock Star In Repose

What her tender, flippant, comforting, unnerving album ‘Anti’ meant to 2016

We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.

Fighters carry a serenity in the body that contradicts that of dancers, who are their parallels in terms of movement. Preparation, for the dancer, is the limit; not so for the combatant, whose stage is many things, including the square of battle, but also the opponent buzzing around them and those fights that have been internalized. They’ve got to be permeable to risk, and resigned to chance. Rihanna moves more like a fighter than a dancer. Parris Goebel, the head choreographer on her Anti world tour, allowed Rihanna space to make her small improvisations — exaggerated smirks, stomps, and the like. The performances began with Rihanna approaching from the back of each arena, trailed by a cape. She shed it before entering her version of a ring: a translucent catwalk suspended from the ceiling, where she was all alone.

“Woo” came third on the set list, while the singer was still suspended from above. It’s a warlike song, an acute, anomalous surge on an album that is already discordant with the singer’s catalogue. Watching Rihanna crow from below, it seemed that that was the sound that gave her the most energy.

Anti was fought for. Before it existed for consumption, the album had a colloquial name, “R8,” referencing its eventual number in her discography and also the bewilderment that it wasn’t out yet. Nearly every year for seven years, until 2012, Rihanna released an album. Each of the last four — Rated R, Loud, Talk That Talk, and Unapologetic — came out in November, near the anniversary of its predecessor. The sense was that her nonchalance, an offhand, uncomplicated relationship to the commercial purposes of music, bore confident pop regardless, and so she was in a protected class of one. Then came three years, three miscellaneous singles, and a handful of false starts. Rihanna’s peers in public adoration and in music — Kanye West, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean — would release new albums on similar intervals this year, but their speed (or lack thereof) has been understood as an exigency of auteurism. Rihanna’s newer irregularity didn’t compute with the example of her pop career, but it did accord with what we know of the power she has over her life.

Even once it was indisputable that Anti was imminent, disorientation still lingered. The rollout was labyrinthine and confused, featuring a scavenger hunt sponsored by Samsung Galaxy that actually sent members of the Navy, Rihanna’s fan base, to an abandoned bank in midtown New York City. On January 27, Anti leaked two nights before it was supposed to be released. The next day, via the savvy Samsung deal, Rihanna essentially released it for free.

Rihanna’s well-known nonchalance remained on Anti, but the feeling metamorphosed into a true philosophy. The talent she has for dressing, her ability to change the appearance of clothes once she’s worn them, finally and completely infiltrated the music. Collaborators talked about how directive she was in the writing, production, and the art. She even wrote occasionally. (NB: Rihanna doesn’t need to be a writer.) On the songs that weren’t credited to her, the sophistication of her vocals was its own brand of authorship. “Love on the Brain” felt stark because of how well she sung it technically, and “Higher,” the album’s other, more drugged-up ballad, was forceful because of how much she let go. “James Joint” managed to meander while finishing at just over a minute. Tracks like “Woo” took a while to sink in, which was appropriate, since she dropped the album in the contemplative dead of winter. The other oddity, “Work,” which became the song of the year, used a practiced, dancehall drift from her teenage Music of the Sun days. Otherwise, Anti was tender and flippant, comforting and unnerving, like none of her albums had been before. Anti gave so much of Rihanna without ever being a personal document or capitulating to the binaries of alignment to an establishment that the title suggested.

That is the fighter’s stance: a gesture of exposure moderated by retreat back into familiar and protected domain. It is really a miracle how totally Rihanna’s image has changed from years past, further impressive when you realize how much of that change was by her own will. She came abroad to be loved, and then, for a time, was instead diagnosed and pitied, the slick kind of feminized violence that spreads more obnoxiously than the physical. I wonder if Anti is a belated response. Rihanna avoided being representative of the condition of women by choosing to only represent her self-interests. She is “not a role model.” She conceals artfully, discloses playfully. A cultivation of lifestyle — her trips back home to Barbados, her tattoos, her laughter, her love of family, her social media presence — in the moment that every other person of her caliber is trying out reclusivity, and the secondary group is trying out diva-hood, makes Rihanna the last rock star.

Anti is a rock-star album that has been reborn in new valances in the 11 months it’s been out. It works in mythologies — some of which are about stoner heroes, vengeful girls, and maladjusted-but-addicted lovers — rather than biography. Fantasies should have currency, even the occult ones we still have about justice. In the video for “Needed Me,” directed by Harmony Korine, Rihanna plays out one of her favorites, which is retribution for an unseen transgression. It’s a better idea of America than, say, the triteness of “American Oxygen,” which we did not know was antithetical to the coming album.

The album anticipated other progresses. 2017 will likely be the real arbiter, but short retrospection shows that this year was a banner one for heterogeneity in R&B — the real range of it, meaning Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic just as much as Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Tory Lanez’s I Told You just as much as The Weeknd’s Starboy. The early 2010s experienced twin blights: excess EDM-ification of the more classic acts, people like Usher, and an over-valorization of the “vanguard,” meaning Ocean and others. Anti sits relaxed in the space between, without canceling the value in either avenue. That Rihanna could commute from the dance-music doctrine to looser spaces, in part by renegotiating the importance of commercialization, is one of the smarter correctives in a year that’s been full of them.

Anti could even change with the seasons, depending on which tracks you chose to listen to. It had songs to dance to in the heat, and songs to escape to in the cold. No major album release following could nullify Anti’s control, because Rihanna was stoking atmosphere, not time. Coming up on the album’s first anniversary, there hasn’t been an expectation that she will drop another project. Anti’s ambience has a good deal of feeling left.

Next in MTV News's Year in Music 2016: Tirhakah Love on Kendrick Lamar's prophecy.