Over the last decade, Rihanna has cultivated a very specific image of herself. Shifting ceaselessly from cheeky to coy to naked sexuality and back again, Rihanna is the consummate chameleon, changing for the times and evolving when she feels the need to shed her latest skin. Largely, as an audience, we have projected our perceptions onto her. Each new iteration of music, hair and fashion has left just enough room for our own desires to rush in and fill the void. But on ANTI we see exactly what powers the Rihanna machine and she lets us into her head; here is a full body of work that examines every facet of her being and lays it bare on her own terms.
ANTI is peak Rihanna. Endlessly delayed, it's no coincidence that this is Rihanna's most daring and truthful work to date. She waited until it was right; until it reflected her the way she wanted to be seen, and then gave it away for free, ensuring that no one could mistake it for sheer arrogance or braggadocio. ANTI shows a side of badgalriri we've only speculated about before, and untangles the complicated issues of her place in pop culture and how it relates to her sexuality, her blackness and her feminism.
The thing about ANTI is that it almost doesn't work. As a singular entity it makes sense: it is a declaration of her personhood on all fronts. But take it apart and it becomes mush in your hands, exploring disparate ideas all at once with through-lines that are tenuous at best. And yet, the ideas themselves are crystal clear: there is no beating around the bush. Rihanna is here now and she knows exactly why and on what terms she expects for that to happen. Gone are the pulsing club bangers she's built her career on. Instead we're treated to raw, brooding melodies that conjure images of solitary contemplation. The music exists under an eternal thick fog of smoke traced back to a blunt; truths emerging as inhibitions come down.
The opening track, Consideration, (which she co-wrote) is the brash declaration of a new direction. The heavy bass drops deep as Rihanna's voice, higher and clearer than ever before, laments. If it wasn't clear before, it is now. Rihanna is over it, and she's ready to move onto something fresh and new. She's ready to grow and make music that can evolve with her, and she's demanding the space to do so. With that, she sets the tone for the complex delicacy she's about to serve us, combining styles and sounds until she achieves that magic cocktail that hits exactly the right spot.
On Kiss It Better, she taunts an ex, making him admit that he'll take her back no matter what. As guitar riffs sing in the background, Rihanna asserts herself both to him and to us as the audience: "You're always going to come back to me so why fight it?" Work, the first official single, is a moody dancehall inspired track full of lust and longing. The messaging persists, though here she has convincing to do. The negotiation between disregard and sentiment is delicate, and Rihanna handles it expertly. She wants us to stay, but she doesn't plan to work for it. Slurring through the lyrics, the light disdain is palpable. Should you stay? Rihanna answers "Sure I guess..." She's far more concerned with her own pleasure than she ever will be with you.
OnWoo, she's back to taunting, but it's on the deliciously dark and cutting Needed Me where she turns savage. Rihanna may long for company when the sun sets, but she doesn't need it and never did. Here she pointedly cuts her man down, reminding him that she's the one doing all the giving here. She asserts her sexual agency as someone who likes to fuck and is perfectly happy getting it elsewhere should the need arise. Here is the reminder: she's not the one tied to you and she never intends to be. The rejection is unambiguous and swift: "Don't get it twisted. Everything about you is replaceable."
But on Higher, Rihanna is lit and pouring her feelings out. On the all too brief track, her voice strains high and raw as she fights to ensure she gets the words out. She's independent yes, but the moments of loneliness and need still come. She's a savage, but not a loner or a recluse. She too longs for comfort and company, and she'll take it where it comes. The Rihanna amalgam to Adele's Hello, Higher breaks open the shell of the untouchable black woman and exposes the pain too many assume she never feels. Pose is a return to the Rihanna we know and love. While the sound is new, the lyrics recall the swagger and surety we saw in Pour It Up. Hate if you like, but have a seat while she gets loaded and works it. On Sex With Me she brags about hitting it better than anyone else. On both, she's little concerned with outside validation. Feel free to come along for the ride, but don't expect to be missed if you don't.
Taken together, the disparate parts of ANTI form a cohesive whole. Here is a woman a decade older and wiser, sure of herself and the direction she intends to take her life in. These tracks open her up and lay her bare as a whole person, showing the ways in which conflict can exist in harmony. The music is daring and intimate. She lets us see the strings in a way we never have before, perhaps an effort to undo the "bad bitch" label she has inhabited for so long. It's not that she won't cut you down with a sharply chosen emoji or gif on Instagram, it's that there are levels to being Rihanna, and under the surface, there exists more than the "sexy Bajan pop princess" we've come to know and love.
This is the album Rihanna wanted to make rather than the one that we expected from her, but that too shows growth. Her declarations of sexual freedom serve as metaphor for very real freedom: from commercial constraints or a continued need to prove her staying power. She's established herself as a powerhouse and her legacy is set. Now she seeks out experimentation and nuance.
ANTI may be less radio friendly and traditional, but that is the point. This is not establishment. This is her truest self in music form and it's anti-everything. There are none of her usual themes and no pop hits. Rihanna has set herself firmly in opposition to not only to her own past musical ethos, but to the very music industry itself.