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Rihanna ANTI Roc Nation

When interviewed by Miranda July for the New York Times last year, Rihanna gave us a rare and revealing glimpse of her worldview. “It almost excites me; I know what they’re expecting and I can’t wait to show them that I’m here to exceed those expectations”. Despite the stunted album rollout and red-herring single run of last year, Rihanna has achieved just that on ANTI. Exceeding expectations by highlighting how flawed they were in the first place – point-blank refusing the thirst for any clear-cut, straightforward identity.

Serial partygoer and trusted provider of bangers; blunt blowin’ #IDGAF @badgalriri; shadowy pop chanteuse with credible and commercial clout. These are all idealised versions of Rihanna that people have attempted to define her with over the last decade, sometimes out of laziness and sometimes out of fascination.

ANTI isn’t looking to destroy or confirm any of these reputations. If anything, the sheer freedom on show is a response to the search for a handy bitesize definition of her character and her artistry. Consideration creeks open the gates with a heavy-footed trip-hop production and an especially hypnotising guest-spot from SZA. Then James Joint – an unwinding stoner interlude – bridges the gap into Kiss It Better where Rihanna gets her Prince on, complete with falsetto backing vocals and a gaudy electric guitar riff. Work – the album’s only real prospective hit – bursts with dancehall energy and spacious production before the pace slows down again for the foggy swell of Desperado. This constant negotiation of styles and sounds doesn’t ease off on ANTI but there are moments like Yeah, I Said It and Love On The Brain where she strikes gold. The former is a hushed RnB diamond produced by Timbaland, the latter a doo-wop nostalgia joint with all the frustrations of unrequited love laid bare.

Elsewhere on the record, things fall a little flat. The vapid touch of Travi$ Scott is impossible to miss on Woo, while Needed Me and final track Close To You seem to float off into the ether as quickly as they started. This is probably the most non-Rihanna trait the album has. It’s the first time she’s put out records that seem to flutter without any eventual sting.

But perhaps in recognising this we’ve stumbled across the album’s focal point. In questioning what’s disappointing about ANTI, you’re forced to ask yourself what you expected. Something less apologetic? Something louder? Something a little more badass or cut-throat? These cheap thrills might have been more gratifying but they certainly wouldn’t have opposed public expectation as the title so boldly suggests. Rihanna seems to be at peace with her lack of direction here, not afraid to try things out without chasing ‘classic’ status or worrying about the long-term effects it might have on Rihanna the brand. In many ways, that is ANTI’s real case for being an antithesis of the status quo as a pop record in 2016. You can’t condense it into an Emoji or cherrypick a lyric for memefication – you have to take it all in and drift along with the biggest pop star on the planet as she explores the possibilities. Some parts are bound to wash over you while others make an indelible mark.

It’s a disorienting formula but it’s a compelling one. Despite its missteps, ANTI never sounds fake. It’s driven by undertones and nuance – rather than undergoing a full reinvention, Rihanna has placed herself at a vantage point where she can flirt with a number of styles and sounds, reminding us that she never promised to be anything at all. Even the manner in which she steers between the various gears is unbothered. It’s a record where she spends seven minutes on a Tame Impala cover and only two on Higher – a 4AM anthem depicting overspilling ash trays and a proud lack of poeticism. This two-minute highlight tucked away before the album’s closer is perhaps the greatest Rihanna vocal performance ever. Her voice – which has often been described as her weakness – takes centre stage and soars into a raspy, weathered upper register that reminds us to accept no substitutes. On its final line, Rihanna summarises just what it is that stands behind the successes, the pitfalls and ultimately the central truth of ANTI. If we’re to crown her as the realest then why must her identity come so clearly packaged? Why shouldn’t she be an artist, “With a little bit too much to say”? It’s an appropriate parting shot from an artist who is still happily figuring things out, maybe we should stop trying to do it for her.