So what's there instead?
Let's be clear: this isn't Rihanna’s Metal Machine Music. It's not a complete rebranding; it's a thoughtful repositioning. While the executive producer stamp from Kanye West on the record means very little on a song to song basis, his presence -- or, maybe, the meddling of his protege and rumored Rihanna boyfriend Travis Scott -- is felt in the album's gallery-ready cover art, noise-pop tendencies, and newfound conceptual rigor. Rihanna already has some strong full-lengths in her discography, Rated R in particular, but this is her first self-consciously cohesive album. That it still feels a bit frantic is a testament to her raised middle finger taste. "Didn't they tell you that I was a savage?" she asks at one point on the stand-out "Needed Me." "Fuck your white horse and a carriage."
And, she means it. On the barely a minute "James Joint" she flirts with Thundercat-style lounge jazz, but in the next song, "Kiss It Better," she's crooning over icy '80s porno guitar solos. The only Scott-featuring song, "Woo" is probably the record's garish low point: RiRi moaning about "fiending on the yayo" over lurching guitar screeches and pittering hi-hats. She fares better on desert-noir sheen of "Desperado" and the twinkling piano mood piece "Yeah, I Said It." And I haven't even mentioned the Tame Impala cover.
Wait, there's a Tame Impala song?
Yes, towards the center of the album, Rihanna teams up with Kevin Parker of Australian indie psych-rock band Tame Impala for a nearly identical cover of the group's "New Person Same Old Mistakes" off last year's Currents. The six-minute jam works as a hazy fulcrum for the rest of the album, like a smoke-filled passageway the listener must pass through to make it to the other side. Watch out for the leaky bong water coming from the rafters.
But it’s worth the journey. The record's final stretch is Rihanna's most fully realized, just plain beautiful work as a songwriter and singer. From the Dido-jacking hushed confessionals of "Never Ending" to the doo-wop prom massacre vibes of "Love on the Brain," it's clear she's pushing herself as a vocalist. She's discovered new, soulful ways to express the ideas she's explored her whole career: resilience, loneliness, and the desire to be loved. The record hits its retro-chic peek with "Higher," a haunting, anti-poetic drunk text of a ballad. "This whiskey got me feelin' pretty," she sings over producer No I.D.'s mournful string loop. "So pardon if I'm impolite/I just really need your ass with me."
That desire to be seen, recognized, and acknowledged ultimately defines the album. Does that self-seriousness get in the way of the fun at times? Sure, but I'd like to think Rihanna has earned the right to get a little reflective. There's lots of mirror imagery in the lyrics, suggesting she's been studying her selfies as much as we have, considering her broader place in the culture and her legacy as an artist. With Anti, she's trying on new filters. Hopefully it won't be too long before she sends us another set of pics.
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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment and still likes "Umbrella" after all these years. He's on Twitter: @danielvjackson.