Rihanna has been one of pop’s biggest stars for a decade. Songs like “Diamonds” and “Only Girl (In the World)” have dominated the radio and set trends within the music industry. “Loud” is one of the greatest pop albums of the last decade. Her success, however, has been somewhat of an enigma. She is not a powerhouse vocalist. She is not a dazzling performer. She is not a songwriter.
In most areas, she is merely competent.
Then where does she get her star power? I would say, above all, it has been her ability to choose great pop songs. Starting with “Pon de Replay” in 2005, Rihanna has picked a string of top-grade songs. While she is often mocked for her “goat vocals,” Rihanna has always chosen songs that work with her limited range. Then she breathes life into the song with infectious energy and swagger. That star-quality attitude is seen on “Cockiness (Love It)” or “Rude Boy.” That attitude seeps into every area of her public image — for many, Rihanna is the ultimate badass.
Rihanna is best at making straightforward, fun pop, which is why I got concerned when she seemed to be catching a case of “serious artist” syndrome. This is when pop stars who have been perfectly fine staying in their lanes are seized by this sudden desire to seem deep and show off hitherto unknown vocal prowess. Unfortunately, those fears were confirmed with the bizarre release of her eighth studio album, “ANTI,” which arrived Friday.
“ANTI” features almost none of Rihanna’s strengths, which is why it is by far her worst album — chaotic, listless and bloated. It’s like someone took the worst parts of Rihanna’s catalogue and produced an entire album off of it.
What’s even more disappointing is that the results of “ANTI” are exactly what Rihanna intended. The album is titled “ANTI” for a reason – she wanted it to be the opposite of her old music. “Let me cover your s— in glitter / I could make it gold,” she sings on “Consideration,” her “I’m breaking free” song. This attitude is insulting to fans that have been following her for years. “Umbrella” and “We Found Love” are two of the best songs of this century, and to dismiss them is, frankly, a slap in the face. To me, that is the real art, not the pretentious snoozefest that is “ANTI.”
Rihanna has never seemed to care less about her music. The entire album, directionless and unfocused, lacks any bite or energy. She has none of that old attitude that made her a superstar. “Work,” the lead single off the album, is a phoned-in attempt to recreate the magic of “What’s My Name?” “James Joint” barely counts as a song, clocking in at just over a minute.
After a while, all of the songs blend together, not because it is a cohesive work like Madonna’s “Confessions on the Dance Floor,” but because they are all uneven, forgettable pieces. There are very few standout moments on the record.
Not everything is bad, though. Some songs actually do work as experimental pieces, and it would have been great if the entire album had followed in the same vein. “Kiss It Better” is a twisted version of her old hits, a good play on what her old sound was like (Imagine if “Music”-era Madonna had sung it though). “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is simply a good pop song, and it actually sounds polished and finished. While Kanye West did not end up producing the album, “Woo” has the aggression of a track off of “Yeezus.”
Unfortunately, some songs are just really not for her. The vocal strain is apparent on three songs: “Love on the Brain,” “Higher” and “Close to You.” Her voice can sound perfectly lovely with the right production, but the grating production sounds of the album matched with her throaty pronunciation really mixes poorly.
“ANTI” is the least interesting Rihanna has ever been, which is a shame. While she ramps up her image on Instagram and in the papers, Rihanna sounds bored on the sprawling, bloated album. “ANTI” is the unfortunate result of “Serious Artist Syndrome” and a lack of work ethic. It seems like she wants to be taken seriously without putting in the effort. A tepid album produces a tepid reaction. According to The New York Times, the album sold 460 copies in its first week. At this point, music seems to be the least important thing to Rihanna. Maybe she should stick to selling socks from now on.