Before Anti, Rihanna's music was best listened to while raucously pregaming, glaring past lesser mortals, and dancing your face off at the sweatiest part of the night until you shut the party down.
But with Anti — her first full album since 2012's Unapologetic — Rihanna sets the scene for the more intimate afterparty. This is an album for those straggling, happy drunks who stay an hour later than everyone else, winding around the empty dance floor with a half-empty bottle in hand ... and then accidentally on purpose slide into bed together.
ANTI was released on Tidal and Rihanna's website on January 27. It was even free for 24 hours, thanks to the album being posted on Tidal two days early, seemingly by accident. So as more and more people got their hands on the album, in waves after the botched rollout, the collective first reaction was one of confusion. Anti is devoid of the thumping club beats that helped make Rihanna a superstar; it doesn't even include any of the singles (like "FourFiveSeconds" and "Bitch Better Have My Money") that she dropped last year.
But leaving behind straightforward pop doesn't mean Rihanna has lost her bravado — not by a long shot. Anti doesn't strut so much as slink, steady with the confidence of someone who knows exactly what she wants to say.
ANTI breaks expectations for what a Rihanna album can be — but we should have seen that coming
From 2005 to 2012, Rihanna released seven albums in seven years. The combination of her prolific output, defiant cockiness, and magnetic charisma made her one of the world's biggest pop stars. As she and her producers churned out song after music video after studio album, it seemed there was no limit to how huge Rihanna could be.
So when it took her more than three years to create and release Anti, the question that kept ricocheting around was simple: Why?
Now that we finally have Anti, the answer is just as simple: Rihanna wanted to do something different.
We could've anticipated this. Even though none of the singles she released in 2015 are on the final album, they all let Rihanna test the waters with a new kind of material. "FourFiveSeconds," featuring Anti producer Kanye West and Paul McCartney, was a soulful acoustic song better suited for a campfire than a club. "American Oxygen," which never quite took off, was an anthem with an overt message. "Bitch Better Have My Money," the best of the three by a long shot, was a furious call to arms that elevated the simplest lyrics to the highest forms of disdain.
Thus, by the time Anti came out, it shouldn't have been a huge surprise that the album was so different from Rihanna's usual output. (Also: The album is literally called Anti, so it seemed pretty clear that it would try to go against the grain.)
Anti isn't without its callbacks to Rihanna's previous works. "Consideration" (featuring SZA) opens ANTI with the smirking "how you like me now?" attitude of 2011's Talk That Talk. "Woo" (featuring Travis Scott) has some of the snarling hard edges of Unapologetic and 2009's Rated R, while "Work" (featuring Drake) embraces the Caribbean sway of 2010's Loud.
But Anti was never going to be exactly the same as any of those albums — and it's so much better for it.
To see Anti clearly, you'll have to get through a cloud of smoke
More than any of Rihanna's previous albums, Anti is for stoners.
Rihanna, an out-and-proud marijuana enthusiast, is one of the best cases for marijuana legalization we're ever going to get. Whenever she posts a picture to Instagram, her most trusted and personal social media platform, it's almost more unusual not to see some smoke curling around the photo's edges.
Anti follows that lead, leaning so far into the haze that it almost gets lost. But Rihanna, whose voice has never sounded stronger than it does on Anti, manages to cut through with moments of startling, welcome clarity.
A contender for both Rihanna's best stoner anthem and Anti's very best track is "Same Ol' Mistakes," a cover of "New Person, Same Old Mistakes" by the psychedelic synth band Tame Impala. Rihanna's version is pretty straightforward, her vocals layered on top of Tame Impala's instrumentation for almost seven minutes of trippy pop. She's in no hurry; she just lets her voice unwind, twist, and sink into the bass.
Even Anti's overtly sexy songs are slower, more purposely shapeless than Rihanna's usual bedroom jams. On the stellar power ballad "Kiss It Better," her voice slides off sleek electric guitar licks as she promises she's going to "make it right ... fuck your pride." The indulgent "Desperado" prowls, patient and powerful.
Then, halfway through the album, you hit the smooth twofer of "Needed You" and "Yeah, I Said It," both set at a simmer rather than a boil. They're no less hot; they're just ready to go.
However, if you need more convincing that Anti is the perfect soundtrack for a 4 am fog, look no further than "James Joint," the album's cheeky second track. It's just a minute-long interlude, but Rihanna makes her intentions known in the first line, a low, "I'd rather be smoking weed / whenever we breathe."
Can't get much clearer than that, really.
For all of Anti's experimentation, its most rewarding moments are when Rihanna gets real
Toward the end, Anti veers into unexpected territory, becoming a miniseries of torch songs.
Rihanna has dipped into this realm before; Unapologetic's "Stay" is four gorgeous minutes of mourning heartbreak. But traditionally, Rihanna's faltering attempts at ballads have made otherwise strong albums weaker.
But like I said before: Anti is different.
Musically, these torch songs are throwbacks, conjuring up images of a single spotlight in a dusky piano bar. But when you consider the words, and let Rihanna's impassioned, scratchy belt wash over you, Anti's versions are far from carbon copies of more traditional siren songs.
For example: "Higher" is just two minutes long, but Rihanna's raw longing is scorching. It goes from a beguiling, "This whiskey got me feeling pretty," to Rihanna throwing herself into the sloppier mess of just wanting to be with someone, and fast:
You take me higher, higher than I've ever been, babe
Just come over, let's pour a drink, babe
I hope I ain't calling you too late, too late....
You light my fire. Let's stay up late and smoke a J.
I wanna go back to the old way,
But I'm drunk and still with a full ashtray,
with a little bit too much to say.
Never has a drunk dial been this convincing — or this powerfully moving.
Another standout is "Love on the Brain." You know how action movies will sometimes show the fiery tire tracks of a car if it goes too fast? "Love on the Brain" lives in those tracks, sizzling in the aftermath of a feeling that's almost too hot to touch. "You love when I fall apart," Rihanna wails, "so you can put me together, and throw me against the wall."
Then, as she's parsing out what the hell she thinks, or is supposed to think, she muses with frank candor: "Must be love on the brain, that’s got me feeling this way / it beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good ... and I can’t get enough."
Rihanna knows you might read something less than flattering into these lyrics. But now, as ever, she doesn't care. She just wants to make some music, smoke a J, have good sex, and enjoy the night — which makes Anti truer to Rihanna's ethos than any album she's ever produced.