SPOTIFY – Hang up those dancing shoes and get those headphones: with her eighth album, “Anti,” Rihanna abandons the dance-floor in favor of a late-night, post-club vibe session.
When the long-gestating 13-track collection was accidentally leaked on sometimes ago, after months of buzz-building by the Barbadian performer, the streaming service Tidal made the entire album available, and fans got a sense of at least one reading of the title. (Rihanna is signed to the label and management company of Tidal principal Jay Z.)
While “Anti” is definitely not the absolute contrary of what Rihanna made in the past, it still does deviate significantly from the lustrous, hard pop polish of earlier efforts, and finds her offering up some of the moodiest and, in a few cases, most traditionally soulful songs of her career.
She starts in an unsettled mood on “Consideration,” seeking peace of mind over a crunchy groove and a stutter-step beat, and then descends into the weed-smoke haze of the interlude “James Joint.” From there, the tempos are conspicuously sluggish, the atmosphere gauzy. A moving guitar underscores lusty but low-key entreaties to keep her up all night on “Kiss It Better,” before the singer-songwriter oozes into a woozy, repetitive pas de deux with Drake on the single “Work.”
Both “Consideration” and the ensuing “James Joint” work because they are on the quieter, more contemplative side. Sometimes the best way to make a point isn’t just shouting it over and over again, like Rihanna does on the gimmicky (but fun) “Bitch Better Have My Money”, which didn’t make the final cut and would have stuck out pretty glaringly.
The gear switches pretty abruptly with “Kiss It Better”, a maximalist love song that features colossal guitar from Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme. The track is the perfect blend of Rihanna’s chart-topping sound and her new direction, as is the cinematic “Desperado”. Those two records are a perfect snapshot of where she is as an artist, and work both as potential radio singles and album cuts.
A curious thing happens as “Anti” unfurls. Rihanna pivots from an expansive, murmury cover of Tame Impala’s languid, resigned “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” — here dubbed “Same Ol’ Mistakes” — into an old-school soul R&B vibe far less cluttered than what has preceded it.
The transformation begins with the comparatively unfussy acoustic-guitar ballad “Never Ending,” with Rihanna musing on romantic dissolution and its lasting tendrils. The real revelation comes next with “Love on the Brain,” as she deploys her infrequently used head voice over a classic slow soul groove, which makes the downshift into her familiar husky register that much more effective. As she implores “Don’t you stop loving me,” her performance has a grit, sweat, and weariness to it that’s unusual and humanizing. “Higher” continues the retro theme; while it feels more shrill and shouty vocally, it also feels fully engaged. Rihanna brings the proceedings to a close with a melancholy piano ballad, “Close to You.”
Rihanna might never do introspective neo-soul as well as SZA or futuristic Ex Machina R&B quite like Kelela, but neither of those singers will likely ever reach her stadium status. As a whole, Anti might not be as provocative of a statement as Rihanna hopes for it to be, but it’s still fascinating to see an artist in the midst of a metamorphosis.
There are a handful of tracks here that’ll stay in rotation for the next few months, but the real impact of Anti will be when we look back on it in five years and see whether it was the harbinger of a darker, smarter, more intimate second act for Rihanna, or merely a striation in a career of Calvin Harris-produced chart-toppers.