As each year comes to pass, we are all exposed to milestones that cannot help but remind us of how old we are actually becoming. For example, in 2021 alone, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory is turning 50 years old, Arctic Monkeys Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not recently turned 15 and Adele’s 21 has already celebrated its 10th birthday.
Another project joining these ranks is that of Rihanna’s ANTI, released 5 years ago in 2016, it is the artist’s most recent album to date so to commemorate this occasion, I thought it would be fitting to take a trip down memory lane and revisit what makes ‘ANTI’ arguably Rihanna’s best album 5 years on.
Prior to ANTI, Rihanna’s discography focused on the pop and club bangers that had brought her to international attention way back in the late noughties and early 2010s. Tracks like “Umbrella”, “Only Girl (In the World)” and “We Found Love” were played absolutely everywhere for their catchiness and euphoric nature and made Rihanna one of the biggest popstars on the planet.
Jump to 2016 and Rihanna has signed with a new label and released her most ‘different’ album so far in the form of a more soul and R&B focused sound coupled with some brooding production that really draws a contrast with her previous body of work.
I feel like this project can be split fairly easily into two parts. The first eight tracks lean heavily into the dancehall and gloomy elements of the album. “Consideration” kicks off with some scattered and glitchy percussion that continues throughout the whole track while Rihanna sings about going her own way and not letting criticism distract her from the music she wants to make.
The opener is bolstered by some moody bass and additional vocals by fellow musician SZA, creating a perfect intro into what this album is going to be. The next highlight is “Kiss It Better”, an ode to 80s and 90s power ballads that features some gorgeous guitar lines mixed with the vocals in the chorus and overall, the ‘poppiest’ sound that ANTI ever reaches.
Following from this is “Work”, the anthem to many a student night either through intention or unavoidable happenstance. While I feel this track is a bit too repetitious in its hook, I can see how it blew up the way that it did. The reggae and dancehall vibes are on full display here and show that even with this darker sound, Rihanna is more than capable in crafting these huge pop hits.
Finishing off the highlights from this portion of the album, we have “Needed Me”. A beautifully minimal track in terms of its production with these dark and fluttery synths throughout and an incredibly anthemic chorus echoing the message of female empowerment that can be found all over this project.
The last few tracks on this album tend to abandon the moodier style of the first batch of songs in favour of a more soulful and arguably optimistic sound, elevating the contrast that this album has inherently created.
“Same Ol’ Mistakes” is a cover of Tame Impala’s 2015 album closer “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” featuring virtually identical production and instrumentals with the inclusion of Rihanna’s vocals being the only difference between the two tracks. While it serves little purpose to broaden ANTI’s overall experience, it still affords an opportunity to listen to Tame Impala which is always a good thing in my eyes.
It is not until “Never Ending” where the divides between each part of the album are at their most visible. Lush guitar lines give this track some strong folk and country sounds, while the vocals move away from the darker and hushed tones with dancehall influences that punctuate the former tracks.
Providing a nice comedown from the first half of the album, it’s a really pretty track with the lighter sound expanded upon in “Love On The Brain”, an incredibly soulful piece with some 50s doo-wop influence and some of the best vocal takes ANTI has to offer.
This softer portion of the album culminates in the final track “Close To You”, a heartfelt piano ballad accompanies by occasional string swells that reinforce the fragility and delicacy of ‘ANTI’s back half.
Overall ANTI shows Rihanna at her most musically mature point in her career so far. 5 years on and with a new album supposedly in the works, it is clear that Rihanna has reached the point where she is able to make the music that she truly wants to, regardless of label or critic influence.
While the heavy pop moments and chart-topping tracks are still to be found on this project and will almost always be found on her future endeavours, this at times darker and R&B/dancehall infused sound she has perfected shows a side of Rihanna that will truly allow her freedom in the future to hopefully produce a body of work as incredible as this one.
ANTI by Rihanna was released in January 2016 via Westbury Road Entertainment and Roc Nation, purchase it on iTunes here and stream it on Spotify below.
Words by Tom Owen