Rihanna’s ANTI Is No Baptism By Fire, But It’s Still Lit

Rihanna ANTI Baptism By Fire Lit

“If you think about #R8 not as an album but as an endurance piece testing the limits of stan culture then that’s kinda cool,” I tweeted last November. At that point, we were about 36 months into the Great Rihcession of the early-mid aughts, so I’d had tons of time to wonder what, exactly, was holding up the release of Rihanna’s eighth studio album, ANTI.

There were signs of behind-the-scenes turmoil: that Kanye West had stepped down as executive producer; that collaborator and alleged new flame Travis Scott was holding up production; that, as recently as last month, Rihanna was knocking on Sia’s door looking for new material. But that kind of drama had never plagued Rihanna’s past seven albums, which were released annually between 2005 and 2012 (save for 2008, which “merely” saw a reissue of 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad.) So, as the truther within me took root, I began to wonder: Did Rihanna’s eighth album even exist at all? Was ANTI the anti-BEYONCÉ: all hype and no release? Was the seemingly delayed promotional cycle actually a meta-pop music performance in and of itself that would lay the last remaining remnants of the stan wars era to rest once and for all?

Lol, no. Rihanna released ANTI to streaming platform TIDAL just before midnight on Wednesday following a series of leaks earlier in the day, along with a limited number of free downloads via Twitter. (The album hit iTunes today, after a TIDAL-only exclusive yesterday.) ANTI has 13 tracks — previously released singles “FourFiveSeconds,” “American Oxygen,” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” have been stricken from the record — and features collaborations with SZA (“Consideration”), Drake (“Work”), Timbaland (“Yeah, I Said It”), DJ Mustard (“Needed Me”), Bibi Bourelly (“Yeah, I Said It,” “Higher”), Boi 1da (“Work”), and Natalia Kills (“Kiss It Better”).

But most importantly, ANTI is real. It’s real, and it has been real this entire time. #R8 was somewhere all along; I could have learned to stop worrying and love the Samsung #ANTIdiaRy months ago. So, why didn’t I? As much as I hate to admit it, it all kind of boils down to the fact that I must not have fully trusted Rihanna’s vision at times, and, if the comments on ONTD over the past year are any indication, I was not the only one.

Based on the lyrics, Rihanna seems fully aware of the general public’s distrust in her abilities—of their perception of her as a pop hitmaker with little to no artistry to back up those number ones. Is this singles artist capable of producing a capital-A album? Why did she decide to fuck up a good thing she had going? Rihanna addresses these, and other, patronizing concerns head-on in the SZA-featuring opening track, “Consideration”:

I got to do things
My own way darling
Will you ever let me?
Will you ever respect me? No
Do things my own way darling
You should just let me
Why will you never let me grow?

Agency, and being robbed of it, fuel every cylinder of ANTI’s engine. Considering Rihanna’s origin story, it’s not hard to see why. She was discovered at 16 by American record producer Evan Rogers while he was vacationing in Barbados. Rogers flew teenage Rih to the States, where she was soon signed to Def Jam by then CEO and president Jay Z. Separated from her home but determined to succeed, Rihanna released seven albums and toured the world six times between 2005 and 2013—a grueling pace that sounds fucking exhausting, and likely informed the droning anxiety captured throughout many of the first eight and a half tracks, particularly the Drake-featuring “Work.”

But a decisive shift occurs about three minutes into track nine, “Same Ol’ Mistakes”—a cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”—setting the rest of the album in stark tonal contrast with what came before. Gone is the tension that comes from balancing demanding personal and professional lives—along with the overarching feeling of failure on all fronts. In its place, a sense that Rihanna’s got this shit covered and that she can just be present. Sonically, it’s as if she’s crawled out from a 48-hour Sega Genesis bender only to find that—holy shit!—she’s on a relaxing vacation at a beach-facing rental. It’s in album’s concluding tracks that we also hear new sides of Rihanna’s voice, from the growling rawness of “Higher” to the almost alien head voice on “Same Ol’ Mistakes” and “Love on the Brain.” (It’s improved so much since those 2008 live performances of “Disturbia” that I pretend never happened.)

It’s interesting that she chose “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” to signal this Janet-style declaration of artistic autonomy, as the Tame Impala song is about dealing with accusations that you’ve sold out and negotiating what to do from there:

I can just hear them now
“How could you let us down?”
But they don’t know what I found
Or see it from this way around

But despite the fact that Rihanna’s coming to the song from another angle — she’s trying to convey her artistic bonafides after more than a decade of mainstream success — the message is the same: Fuck what they’re saying. I know what I’m doing. It’s really good, and I’m right for doing it. And not that anyone needs to prove anything to indier-than-thou assholes, like, literally ever, but it’s worth taking note of how Rihanna intentionally released her album so that it would absolutely not be a commercial success—at least not a Rihanna-level success. For the first full day of the album’s release, there was only three ways that anyone could listen to Rihanna’s new album: 1.) by streaming it on TIDAL, 2.) by downloading a free digital copy via Rih’s tweet from last night, and 3.) by downloading a leaked version of the LP.

Assuming Billboard won’t count the free downloads when figuring out their charts next week, Rihanna’s only source of chart-able units will come from TIDAL streams. (Ed note: We’ve reached out to Billboard for confirmation on which sources they will consider when deciding ANTI’s placement on the Billboard 200, and I will update the story if we hear back.) Throw in the fact that she removed three previously released singles from the album track list, “FourFiveSeconds,” “American Oxygen,” and “Bitch Better Have My Money,” and that negates any so-called “equivalent album sales” to occur and that she dropped ANTI on a Wednesday (weekly music sales start on Friday, the semi-recently adopted international album release day), and Rihanna’s basically guaranteed that her album will be her lowest-debuting release of all time.

Charts and sales figures are becoming increasingly inaccurate indicators of success in the post-Napster music industry; newcomer Halsey’s selling out Madison Square Garden, yet her highest-charting single stalled at number 60 on the Hot 100. But they are still the tools that we currently use to gauge success at the moment. By their measure, Rihanna’s album will be a failure, but it will be an intentional failure—a failure by design, an assertion of agency through contradiction. The Navy commandrix seems focused on shedding disposable pop star image, and she’s willing to go down with the ship to achieve that goal.

Circling back through ANTI nearly a dozen times, I feel confident in saying that Rihanna has proven herself to be, in many ways, a sort of anti-Rihanna with this work. Glimmers of her pop sensibility make themselves known throughout the album (notice how 11 of the 13 tracks clock in at under four minutes?), but there are no real radio-friendly singles to be found. This Rihinvention may not be a full-on scorched earth-style baptism by fire, but trust me—it’s still very much lit.

Get ANTI on iTunes here.

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