Rihanna’s magnum opus
‘Anti,’ set to dominate next month’s Grammys, is 2016’s best album — the best project of Rihanna’s career
Who she is. What she hopes to become. What turns her on. What turns her off. The strength. The pain, and the vulnerability. The seemingly never-ending pond of possibilities at her fingertips. It’s all there, hiding in plain sight. It’s always been there. Robyn Rihanna Fenty is the ultimate 21st century pop star.
From a sheer numbers perspective, Anti never missed a beat. Though what constituted “sales” initially caused confusion, the album quickly catapulted and became the year’s first double platinum project. And for a release supposedly devoid of singles, the album’s first single and Grammy-nominated Work (featuring Drake) spent nine weeks as the top song in the country, moving her past The Beatles’ longstanding record for then the second most weeks spent at the pinnacle. The success of Work — the year’s most infectious and Caribbean-inspired pop record — undoubtedly opened the door for Drake’s dancehall smashes One Dance and Controlla. In July, Rihanna tied Madonna for entries by women on the Billboard’s Hot 100 — with 57 songs. Two months later, in September, her DJ Mustard-produced smash Needed Me bumped on-again-off-again-who-knows-what-they-are creative partner Drake from the top spot on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. She placed third in Spotify’s most streamed artists, behind only Drake and Justin Bieber. And in year-end lists spanning the web, Anti is nearly universally dubbed as one of the best of 2016 — in close competition with Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
But how and why the album resonated, currently resonates and should resonate moving forward is deeper than just sales and adulation. As Hervey Allen once said, “The only time you live fully is from 30 to 60. The young are slaves to dreams; the old servants to regrets.” Next month, Rihanna turns 29, and begins a victory lap for the decade in which she has made herself larger than life. Anti is an allusion to the confluence of dreams and regret Allen speaks of. More than with any project in her career, after Anti we have a better understanding of who Robyn Fenty is, and — in true enigmatic fashion — we’re left wondering who she will become.
To understand the album’s relevance — originally titled R8 — is to understand the chaotic lead-up to its release. Between 2005 and 2012 — sans only 2008 — Rihanna’s albums were as annual an event as the Super Bowl. And during this time, the name “Rihanna” might as well have been Bajan for “chart topper.” Singles constantly claimed residency either atop or near the top of the Billboard’s influential Hot 100. More than 40 landed in the top 10. And Grammy nominations and awards were a regular occurrence. Songs such as 2007’s Umbrella with Jay Z, 2009’s Run This Town with Jay Z and Kanye West, 2010’s What’s My Name featuring Drake, and 2011’s We Found Love with Calvin Harris became worldwide anthems. We Found Love” is the 24th-highest-selling single in American history and sat at No. 1 on 31 charts in 25 countries.
And then, following 2012’s Unapologetic, Rihanna disappeared — but remained visible as a brand, extending it far beyond music, and making her one of the most in-demand and marketable stars in the world. In 2015 alone, Rihanna covered 15 magazines including Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar while becoming the first black woman to sign a deal with the iconic Dior.
Yet, where Rihanna lives in success, controversy often resides in the same cul de sac. It had been three years since her last full-length project — an eternity by her own standards. The call from fans for a new album was unavoidable. Records such as FourFiveSeconds with Kanye and Paul McCartney, the 2015 NCAA March Madness theme song American Oxygen and the divisive smash B—- Better Have My Money did more to amp frustrations than whet appetites. The wait for a real new Rihanna album, per the Los Angeles Times’ Gerrick Kennedy, “become frustrating enough to be laughable.”
Anti dropped, with very little traditional build-up or promotion, in the dead of winter — Jan. 28, 2016 — as the East Coast shoveled itself out from a major snowstorm. In hindsight, the presidential sized-gap (re: four years) between projects made sense from a growth and spiritual perspective. Rihanna spent much of her late teens and early 20s positioning herself as one of the superstars of tomorrow.
In this era, in which singles supersede projects, Rihanna makes hit-making seem effortless. And while her albums always move the needle in terms of sales and impact, her propensity to deliver hit after hit towers over the totality of her album projects. Her albums are all-star games, and her hits are dunks. It’s what people came to expect from her, and largely what they paid money to hear. Still, she longed to create a project that would make her, by her own admission, “timeless.”
After Unapologetic, the most important professional decision Rihanna made was to lie low and build. To speak about life, a person, actually has to live life — and Rihanna is no exception. There’s a popular saying my grandma throws out from time to time — You’re born, you die. But the most important part of a tombstone is the dash in between those dates. And the older a person gets, the more and more you begin living like a baby again. It’s that type of reflection that manifested itself on Anti. Almost immediately, reviews poured in stating that Rihanna’s album — while a streaming novelty — revealed a career pivot. This album focused on storytelling as opposed to a seeming obsession with creating worldwide hits. This album peeled back the layers of a 28-year-old superstar. A single admission at a time. Flaws and all.
The shift proved a stark reminder of another transitional period in Rihanna’s life and career. In the weeks leading up to her 2009 Rated R album, talk centered around the No. 1 story in pop culture that year (with respect to the first year of the Obama White House), which was how had her focus changed following the domestic violence incident with ex-boyfriend Chris Brown. Involuntarily, the image of the innocent singer from the islands who had become a regular fixture on Top 40 radio had evaporated. She became a centerpiece in an ugly and much-needed conversation, much like how Ray Rice would be five years later.
The creation of Anti completes Rihanna’s transformation to an open, if mysterious book. She’s sexually liberated. A marijuana enthusiast. Man-loving, carefree, but mightily sensitive. She’s a uniquely introspective one-woman economy in an era when those who look like her continue to fight for the very right to be heard and respected.
Sex is an overarching theme on Anti. In part because Rihanna is cozy expressing her sexual enjoyment, her needs, and her fantasies — all of which, well, climaxed, on 2011’s Talk That Talk which Rolling Stone called her “smuttiest record by far.” Often sex is implemented as a form of emotional detachment and role reversal, as on Needed Me.
I was good on my own
That’s the way you was
That’s the way it was
You was good on the low for a faded f–
On some faded love
S— what the f— you complaining for?
… But baby, don’t get it twisted
You was just another n—– on the hit list
Trying to fix your inner issues with a bad b—-
Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?
Literally, everything in between James Joint and Sex With Me is a roller coaster of themes and bend-but-don’t-break emotion. She contemplates the future of a tumultuous relationship on Desperado. She aggressively expressed the demand for no-strings-attached sex on Yeah, I Said It. The very relatable prospect of finding love again on the heels of a toxic relationship dominates Never Ending. However cold and calculated she felt beforehand, Love on the Brain — a subtle homage to Amy Winehouse’s Wake Up Alone — is a continuous chase, perhaps for a lifetime, for a soulmate.
Themes of love — finding it, losing it, vowing to never experience the vulnerability that comes along with it, secretly longing for its intoxication — showcases itself on Higher. “You know he’s wrong,” she told Vogue in April about the record. “And then you get drunk and you’re like, ‘I could forgive him. I could call him. I could make up with him.’ Just desperate.” Meanwhile, Close To You is the acceptance of loves lost — and also the harrowing acceptance that never recovering that piece of her soul that died along with them.
Rihanna is but of one of many black women who dominated culture in 2016. First lady Michelle Obama cemented her legacy as a cultural tour de force who exits the White House as the most beloved political figure in recent memory. Beyonce’s Lemonade is home to some of the year’s finest musical and visual moments. Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, Gabby Douglas and more were the headlines of the Rio de Janeiro Games, making them as popular as Olympic icons Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. Solange dropped the year’s most timely album with A Seat at the Table, which detailing the frustrations of a black woman in America only weeks before the most controversial presidential election in U.S. history. Serena Williams placed her bid in the hat for greatest athlete of all time. And H.E.R.’s H.E.R. Volume 1 may have opened the doors for music’s next mysterious star-in-waiting.
Yet and still, Anti left its own fingerprint. Rihanna needed Anti the way LeBron James needed the 2016 Finals and Evander Holyfield needed to defeat Mike Tyson — backed against the wall, with the entire world watching. Rihanna needed the album not just to sell the way it did, but to take a risk and rewrite the narrative of an already brilliant career. Anti only has two features. On Anti, Rihanna is credited or co-credited with writing all but one song. This had to be her story, her eroticism, her heartbreak, her revenge. I gotta do things my own way, darling/ Will you ever let me?/ Will you ever respect me? she sings on the album’s intro “Consideration.”
“I’ve made a lot of songs that are really, really big songs. From the jump, they just blow up,” she said in March 2015. “I wanted to kind of get back to — not that they weren’t real music, but I just wanted to focus on things that felt real, that felt soulful, that felt forever.”
And despite being skipped over for Album of the Year at the 2017 Grammys, Anti is 2016’s most individually personal collection. Perhaps it was my own battle with the concept of lost love — the bitterness, and the momentary escape and faux-comfort in weed, liquor, parties and emotionless sex. Perhaps Anti speaks to our desire to self-medicate the pain of questions about if you’ll ever be physically, mentally and spiritually complete again. Perhaps it’s Rihanna’s honesty — she doesn’t have life figured out yet, and she’s defined by her insecurities and fears as much as she is her accomplishments and bravado. Or, perhaps, Anti works because, despite millions and millions of records sold worldwide, she was willing to push herself outside of her comfort zone. Or maybe Anti is an elixir of it all.
“I used to feel unsafe right in the moment of an accomplishment — I felt the ground fall from under my feet because this could be the end,” she said last October, just three months before release of Anti. Fame isn’t what drives Rihanna. Fame and accolades isn’t what birthed Anti. Fear does and fear did. “And even now, while everyone is celebrating, I’m on to the next thing.”