It might’ve taken a few years, but former Def Jam darling Rihanna unleashed her long awaited album ANTI last month (for FREE NINETY NINE, nonetheless) — and its title couldn’t seem any more fitting. After breaking from Def Jam Records in 2014 to sign with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, RiRi has scorched herself clean to grow as a bona fide artist in defiance of industry standards.
Until now, Rihanna’s career has constituted nearly annual pop releases that gained radio play ad nauseum — Music of the Sun (2005); A Girl Like Me (2006); Good Girl Gone Bad (2007); Rated R (2009); Loud (2010); Talk That Talk (2011); Unapologetic (2012) — usually for women to get turnt at either the gym or the club. Out of the seven albums she released in a decade, four of which were certified platinum, she managed to stack 13 No. 1 hits on the Billboard charts, yet didn’t get to help write any of them.
However, with the release of ANTI — for which she took an unprecedented three-year break to work on this not-so-radio-friendly LP — Rihanna not only receives writing credits for all of its tracks (except for one cover song), but she also branches out sonically into a range of styles, from sweet soul to psychedelic rock and even power ballads. Still, in every song, she crafts and delivers her lyrics with a certain bravado — similar to that heard on her 2015 single “Bitch Better Have My Money,” which is notably absent from ANTI’s tracklist — that’s co-opted from her male contemporaries and subverted to claim autonomy over her success.
One could argue that Rihanna is throwing her hat into the “hip hop as fine art” movement (refer to Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo) based on the finesse of ANTI’s execution and artwork. Each song off the album stands on its own, calling on disparate elements to show off her range while still blending together to create her very own opus. On ANTI, Rihanna shows us what she’s really made of as a musician — she’s anti-brand, anti-formulaic, anti-mainstream and anti-genre.
Here’s a track-by-track breakdown to prove it:
1. “Consideration” — If you’re still not sure how this album could sound like her departure from entertainer to artist, Rihanna makes sure to spell it out for you on the opening track. It serves as a sort of preamble in the way its lyrics set the album’s defiant tone — I got to do things my own way darling / will you ever let me / will you ever respect me? No — giving a huge flip of the bird to her former music execs.
2. “James Joint” — All there is to say about this track is that it sounds like Stevie Wonder could sing it — if he ever sang about smoking weed and getting laid.
3. “Kiss It Better” — This track marks Rihanna’s first steps into new territory as she takes on the power ballad. Soaked in Prince-inspired guitar riffs, this song asserts that brash confidence we’ve been hearing lately from Badgirl RiRi (FUCK YOUR PRIDE) on a sick slow jam, making it so easy to belt out anywhere.
4. “Work” — In spite of this artistic transition, Rihanna still welcomes familiar duets on ANTI, specifically the one with Drake on this lazy dancehall track. While invoking their typically sweet harmonies (“Take Care”), all while glossed over a dank rhythm, Drake and Rihanna liven up the album’s first single, leaving you to wonder if you’d rather grind or cuddle to the song.
5. “Desperado” — If you’re looking for that perfect song to make a badass entrance — especially if it’s onto the set of a spaghetti western — then this one is for you.
6. “Woo” — Eh, it’s one of the more unremarkable tracks on the album. It leaves something to be desired as it mostly relies on a noisy soundscape.
7. “Needed Me” — This song is a more successful step into the atmospheric by gleaning from The Weeknd’s brand of PBR&B (aka, R&B for hipsters — and, yes, that’s now a subgenre). You can’t help but get sucked into the reverb over the song’s heavy while steady bass, almost as if it’s some kind of itch you don’t want to scratch.
8. “Yeah, I Said It” — As she croons, Rihanna channels the late R&B queen Aaliyah — in fact, the song sounds pretty similar to “One in a Million” in its soft vocals and rhythm — except she delivers it with more self-assurance. In the first verse, she sings, I think I kinda like ya / up against the wall, we don’t need a title, making it clear she’s calling the shots from now on. (Even the title seems pleased with itself, doing away with any pretenses.)
9. “Same Ol’ Mistakes” — This cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” is arguably one of the album’s best and most unexpected tracks. (Quite honestly, it may even be better than the original.) In her version, Rihanna keeps the psychedelic arrangement — pressing harder on the backbeat to create more of a hip hop sound — but swaps out Kevin Parker’s falsetto for her own syrupy female vocals. It’s something you never thought the song would need until you hear it for yourself.
10. “Never Ending” — Rihanna makes room for this stripped-down acoustic song on ANTI, injecting a more intimate note into this mostly abrasive album.
11. “Love on the Brain” — As another standout track, this ballad conjures a dizzying organ melody that harks back to the sweet soul of the late 1960s. In channeling a fervor often delivered in that style, Rihanna shows off her range to hit both the low and high notes while delivering a pervasive type of gusto.
12. “Higher” — Wedged between “Love on the Brain” and the album’s final track, Rihanna turns up the heat on this two-minute song as she belts out its lyrics with greater urgency. (Seriously, you can picture the vessels popping out of her neck as she sings every line.)
13. “Close to You” — As she rides out the album’s softer side, Rihanna closes ANTI with a moving piano ballad in the vein of Unapologetic’s “Stay.” Despite the song’s drastic contrast to the earlier tracks on the album, Rihanna stakes one last claim in her autonomy as an artist by gunning for the unexpected once more.
Featured image courtesy of Vanity Fair.