Mar 18, 2016
Post-Haste: Hopelessly Devoted To Rihanna’s Anti
Post-Haste is a new column that lets us deal with album reviews in our own damn time. The unexpected drop may be great for sales–or clicks–but it’s terrible for criticism. It’s terrible because music, especially pop music, is meant to grow and breathe and live inside your life with you. That’s when you arrive at the kind of writing like Lester Bangs’ ecstatically anguished screed on Astral Weeks (recently cited by Amanda Petrusich in a fabulous piece about how we criticize now). So here is the space to let an album build inside you, or let it demolish your heart, and come to write about it when you’re good ready. The music deserves it–and so do we.
If you know what it’s like to feel totally hopeless about someone, and want to fuck them at the same time, then Anti is for you. For every interview she gave on the lead up to this magnificently understated songwriter-leaning R&B flip, Rihanna emphasized her status as a single woman. It ruled. That narrative did make the lovesick, come-hither full lip hip sway of the album a little surprising though. But Rihanna is the rare singer-songwriter who doesn’t interpret her pain as weakness; vulnerability is a weapon. She’s taunting us again–you don’t know my shit. Fuck a title.
When Anti came out, the botched release annoyed me so much I didn’t even really listen to it. Last month I was a sloth, stuck in a swamp, lethargic and irritable, uncomfortably numb. Rihanna, Kanye, and Kendrick all came out and I was barely ready for the wealth. But once I put Anti on, it was hard to make myself listen to the rap. It was like slipping into a velvet couture dress that comes complete with an AK-47. From those first sweeping bat wing slashes of “Consideration,” bass rocking almost too heavy in the mix, clicks and snaps dovetailing with the rivets in Rihanna’s own voice, this shit was different. Even the inclusion of SZA, a mirror, indicated that. I remember hearing snippets of “James Joint” and what became “Higher” early last year and thinking it reminded me of Motown, and one of the best things about Anti is there’s plenty of classic R&B. Since the record came out I have listened to it in almost every imaginable scenario; walking around the city, on the train and the bus, at home putting on makeup, at work, on a plane — everywhere. But two places were beyond compare the best: one, in a stranger’s living room smoking pot and sharing deep secrets, and two, walking in the California desert looking up at the black-silt mountains.
It’s strange that R&B feels like a left turn for an island girl signed to Roc Nation, and perhaps that’s a testament to how many times Rihanna has successfully reinvented herself, how easily she can mold herself into whatever feels good that day. Halfway through last year I embarked upon a reinvention, and was successful, but I was punished for it too. This led me to tweet: “Women’s greatest strength is our ability to reinvent ourselves, and it’s the thing we get punished for most often.” Maybe Rihanna’s punishment for reinventing herself–completely on her own terms–was the drawn out, mangled struggle to release Anti, because there’s not a chance in hell the label didn’t fight her all the way down the line. Remember that Mike Will Made It snippet? Thank god they lost. “Bitch Better Have My Money” almoooost fits here, so does “Four Five Seconds.” But I never miss them when I let the album play on loop.
“Work” threw me off. I’m glad it’s at least getting some radio traction, but aside from the dancehall influences and Rihanna’s unfuckwithable deployment of patois, it doesn’t feel indicative of the rest of the album. Drake is a downer, corny as hell and I don’t even ascribe to the concept of corniness, that is, until somebody’s employing preference for one twin over the other as proof of true love. “Work” does hit on one major theme though–the gap between desire and reality. Technically, this is the gap that the entirety of pop music concerns itself with, but Anti is particularly caught in this chasm. Because part of the gap between desire and reality she’s examining isn’t about a lover at all, it’s about herself.
That’s the jitteriness of “Consideration,” the urge to bust the fuck out of the role people have dropped you in, or the woozy possibility chained to longing on “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” a song that is one of the best covers the world has yet seen. (I am positive Kevin Parker broke down sobbing when he heard this, what must it feel like to hear someone capture your energy better than you? I kind of hope I never find out. I would listen to an entire album of Rihanna covering Tame Impala.) It’s powerful because it’s a song about transformation that doesn’t try to land on either side of the cliff, it is not former or new and improved, it’s about the elation that comes with realizing the change is possible. Anti is all about these liminal spaces, and how we can occupy them on the day-to-day. For the interludes, “James Joint” reminds us there’s always weed–and property-destroying makeout sessions.
I love Travis Scott’s teetering glitter-fuck darkness, so “Woo” hits at all the right ex-hate-sex sabotage spots for me. To balance it out, just listening to “Yeah I Said It” makes me want to fuck clean and new–not the bitterness of old shit. It’s a shivery, cohesive hunger that rips through relationship roles in pursuit of pure lust, and, it’s the best declaration of female sexual desire I’ve ever heard. Lust that has potential to leave the physical realm and catapult itself into the eternal world-stopping force of “Love On The Brain.” This song would’ve sounded grand a million years ago, and will in a million more. Some songs are not beholden to the time in which they were first sung, “Love On The Brain” is one. It preexists. “Kiss It Better” preexists in a different way; it feels like this song birthed the ‘80s. It’s applicable to that middle place where the only person who can kiss it better is the one who left the bruise. Sometimes, it feels better when things aren’t working, but are continually getting fixed. Sometimes, we can kiss our way out of the urge to bruise one another.
“Higher” and “Close To You” almost argue that, coming like a pair of lambs in wolf’s clothing, waltzing and traditional until it’s I just really need your ass with me a sort of crass territorial aside that slices just right, and twists into Rihanna dispelling any doubts about her raspy grasp on higher octaves forever. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who sounds like this on a drunk dial is still single. But follow that with the childlike, innocent longing of “Close To You”–which I joke-wished was a Carpenters cover–along with the discovery that your heart can still work after losing what was supposed to be forever on “Never Ending,” and it feels like Rihanna gave us as close a look at her real heart as Bey did on that last self-titled record.
Or maybe not. Anti might be Rih rebelling against the enormous pop star career of her past to embrace a new bent as a low-key singer-songwriter. Even if she is, that doesn’t necessarily mean any of this album is true. It sure feels like a Saturn return in sonic form, though. Anti has been eclipsed a bit by Kanye and Kendrick, but I’d be willing to bet this record gets its own Bangs-style paean in a decade or so. I am so looking forward to seeing what Rihanna has transformed herself into by then. For now, those of us currently calling vulnerability home will keep it on repeat. Others can self-actualize at their own pace. Is Anti the best pop album of 2016? Probably. But fuck a title.
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