In what’s probably a coincidence, Anti has poached attention from another pop fixture’s attempted rebellion against expectations this week. Sia’s new album This Is Acting actually is meant to be a collection of spin-class jams—but also an exposé of how the modern song machine works. It’s an anti-Anti in sound, but somewhat akin in its intentions. Taken together, the two albums suggest that even pop stars are getting worn out by the industry they’ve profited from and the culture they’ve shaped. They also, in their mediocrity, offer a reminder that self-awareness is a lot easier to achieve than a good pop song.
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By ditching the sonic signifiers that made her popular in favor of something thicker and more complex, Rihanna joins a tradition that goes back at least to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Beyoncé is probably the last artist to successfully pull this kind of move off (though, before you hit “comment,” know that I’m not trying to equate any of these titles in quality). In fact, Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album has a lot in common with Anti in that it tamped down the expected dosage of fingernapping fun to instead offer Halloween atmospherics and nap-time BPMs. But Pet Sounds had “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Beyoncé had “Partition,” “Drunk In Love,” and “Flawless.” The early contender for Anti’s best song, “Kiss It Better,” would rank among the second tier of Guns ‘N’ Roses ballads.
As with many splashy left-turn albums from pop acts, Anti’s production is an achievement: the result of experimental impulses executed with all the studio firepower money can buy. The mix is very loud—I’ve had to hit pause and rest my old ears a few times while listening—but the volume helps when appreciating the low-end on songs like “Consideration” and “Desperado,” where you can imagine watching the bass strings vibrate in slo-mo on a 3D IMAX screen. The jazzy synth noodling for the interlude “James Joint” may still sound futuristic in 2116. “Woo” joins a trend toward confrontational atonality in recent hip-hop and R&B—thank you Yeezus—but somehow the song’s stabby noises are even more frightening than anyone else’s. Throughout, Rihanna’s voice has never been more magnificent—texturally scuffed up but able to hit big notes.
Also impressive are Rihanna’s intentions in rounding up a forward-thinking set of producers and songwriters to create a cohesive statement about defying expectations. The excellent opener, “Consideration,” has Rihanna using a loopy, bewitching melody to disarm her critics: “I got to do things my own way, darling, will you ever let me? Will you ever respect me? No.” On songs like “Desperado,” she’s looking for a partner in love who will also be her partner in nonconformity; the tabloid reader’s impression will be that she’s referring to her boyfriend Travi$ Scott, the rapper who reportedly encouraged Rihanna to keep tinkering on Anti. And the easiest explanation for why she has a six-minute karaoke cover of a stupendous psych-rock track from Tame Impala’s 2015 album is that its first verse encapsulates her Anti mentality perfectly:
I can just hear them now
“How could you let us down?”
But they don’t know what I found
Or see it from this way around
But admiring how Anti sounds and what Anti says is not the same as loving the songs. “Work” stands out from the rest because of its uptempo beat and clear interest in delivering a hook, but it’s in line with the rest of the album in how it coasts on one good idea, declining opportunities to develop, transform, or even really circle back to offer a sense of completion. DJ Mustard’s “Needed Me” is another act of self sabotage, with attitude-packed verses—“Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage / Fuck your white horse and a carriage”—that give way to a tiresome moan of a chorus.