"I know I could be more creative," Rihanna wails on "Higher," the raw, soulful penultimate track on her new album ANTI. But listen carefully through the long-awaited studio album — Rihanna's eighth and her first since 2012's Unapologetic — and you'll be left with quite a different impression.
ANTI officially dropped on Tidal late Wednesday after being accidentally uploaded to the streaming service's servers. Taken as a whole, it is a collection of artistic risks that showcases Rihanna's sheer vocal talent. While these risks don't always pay off — "it's more of an exercise in rebranding," The Telegraph quips — ANTI's experimentalism is a refreshing product of the music industry's uncertain future and the rise of the streaming era.
When it dropped, ANTI was immediately notable for what it wasn't: commercial. Hitmaking producers Calvin Harris, Dr. Luke, and Stargate, all of whom are known for adding bulletproof pop sheen to Rihanna's past work, are conspicuously missing from ANTI's tracklist. Absent too are the well-reviewed standalone singles "Bitch Better Have My Money" and "FourFiveSeconds." In fact, the closest thing to a radio hit is ANTI's first single, "Work," released Wednesday, which The New York Times' Jon Caramanica called "cheaply effective" despite being "all bubble and no depth." The pop princess herself reportedly turned down a handful of songs that turned out to be major hits — Major Lazer's "Lean On" and Sia's "Reaper" among them.
Instead, the Barbadian singer used her versatile pipes on tracks that span a wide variety of styles, from the slow-burning R&B of "Yeah I Said it" to the subdued acoustic guitar ballad "Never Ending" to the grandiose doo-wop of "Love On The Brain." But perhaps the most confounding choice is "Same Ol' Mistakes," a faithful cover of indie darlings Tame Impala's song "New Person Same Old Mistakes" — itself a deep cut from the band's well-reviewed but hardly mainstream 2015 album, Currents. When you listen to ANTI, what you hear is a pop artist released from the need to make a popular album.
Headlines have long heralded the end of the album's era as the dominant musical format, thanks to the rise of music piracy and streaming services like YouTube, iTunes, and SoundCloud. The amount of people who prefer to purchase a full LP, CD, or even a digital iTunes download of a full album has flattened. These days, a band can build enough intrigue and popularity through a few singles and a tour — before even releasing a full-length.
Rihanna is aware of this economy more than anyone. Though fans have been begging for a new album for quite some time, Rihanna's ubiquitous presence in pop culture makes it quite easy to forget that she hasn't had a proper LP release in three and a half years. Rihanna certainly doesn't need to push out an album to keep herself in the public eye — she has Instagram and Twitter for that — and the release of one-off singles like "Bitch Better Have My Money" proves she doesn't need a cohesive collection of tracks to ensure radio play or to prove her worth on the charts. It's not even like she needs to put out a traditional pop record in order to secure corporate sponsorships: Rihanna inked an "unprecedented" $25 million deal with Samsung back in October to sponsor the album and tour.
It makes sense, then, that the result of relentless pressure to release ANTI would result in a rebellious, imperfect, stylistically expansive and creatively exciting album. While the popularity of streaming has prompted many artists to release more one-offs and singles, it seems that Rihanna has yet again gone against convention, using her album as an experiment while releasing more conventional singles to solidify her place among pop's upper classes.
"I gotta do things my own way, darlin,'" Rihanna sings on ANTI's buoyant opener, "Consideration." And who can blame her? Rihanna will always be known for tracks like "Umbrella," but it's about time the radio heard her change her tune.