Review: How Rihanna Became Music's 'Anti' Pop-Star

Rihanna dominated music for three years without releasing new music, and now her "Anti" album is here and ready to dominate.
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Rihanna dominated music for three years without releasing new music, and now her "Anti" album is here and ready to dominate.

Once a good girl’s gone bad, she’s gone forever. It's a prophecy that predates Rihanna’s third album, an eloquent line rapped by her future boss Jay Z in 2001 that would become the blueprint for her reinvention. With each album, the innocent Barbadian sweetheart became more edgy, more sexy, charming to the ears and mesmerizing to the eyes. The pop star who walked on the wild side with an untameable aura, desired by all but never really belonging to anyone.

No matter how much she changed her style, there was always a touch of edge, a sprinkle of sex appeal, a bad girl that made it look so good to rebel and be free of cares and worries. It was this girl that the world continued to watch when the music stopped four years ago. Her last album came the same year as Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. The title of that album, Unapologetic, is synonymous with her departure from releasing music. Unlike Frank, who vanished into obscurity, Rihanna didn’t leave the spotlight, she was always visible, we never took our eyes off of her. She made it impossible to look away. 

Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, social media kept her in our hands and on our laptops. She was more active than an unemployed couch bum. She was seen at major sports events, a blurry picture in tabloids, on the covers and between the folds of fashion magazines, she was seen and heard on the big screen (This Is The End, Annie, Home). Rihanna was basically seen everywhere but the recording booth. She walked on all the red carpets looking better than the last time, keeping up appearances like she had a project to announce. The years have gone by with her presence radiating everywhere she went.

It’s strange, the most desirable pop star in the world was singing less but the coverage never ceased. Her heel was on the pulse of celebrity culture, she didn’t have a reality show but the people were keeping up with Rihanna as if she was a Kardashian. After the 2013 Diamond World Tour and the 2014 mini Monster with Eminem, she completely took a step back but RiRi always seemed to be among us, if Ernest Baker could cross her path at Coachella she was near enough to touch. She partied at festivals, smoked the good ganja, in the world free to have fun with the elegance of a princess gone rogue. Being present in the physical kept people enamored, she knew how to captivate and still exude everything that the people were missing by her absences.

Rihanna unlocked the secret to relevancy without having to rush. She was in the perfect position to make an impactful reappearance in music. A rare situation in an age where you'd rather oversupply a demanding audience than cut them off cold turkey. In 2014 she left Def Jam and joined Roc Nation. That year all the rumors started, other artists spreading the word about an album, planting the seeds and creating a buzz of anxiousness. We saw last year how Drake used a similar strategy for WATTBA but no album or music came.

Her return didn’t come until 2015 with “FourFiveSeconds.” Performing the song with Kanye and Paul McCartney at the GRAMMY’s signified that Rihanna had returned. I’m not that big on Rihanna but even I was impressed by her performance. High praise came across the boards, the princess had returned to the throne and the ovation proved she was missed. Two months later, “Bitch Better Have My Money” dropped, a song full of an attitude that oozed Lil Kim meets Colombiana. It didn’t quite receive the same raving applause as her previous single but it had potential to be an anthem for the summer. “American Oxygen” was released exclusively through Tidal, so exclusive I don’t remember hearing the song, I’m not sure if anyone did. Despite three records that were big and successful (very successful overseas), they didn’t seem to explode. Rihanna’s return didn’t seem to break new ground or change the landscape. She was back releasing music, back performing, but much like Kanye’s 2015, there seemed to be an issue with finding the right record.

The momentum she built up was killed when no album dropped, she finished the year by attempting to build anticipation with methods of marketing that combined high art and a website that was too cryptic, alluding only that the title was perfect, she was anti making this easy. I think the delay of Rihanna’s album was because of a lack of a chart-topping single in the States.

“FourFiveSeconds” scratched the surface but failed to break through as the monster hit. Does Rihanna need a hit? It’s a question that I wondered while the wait continued. It seemed like they were approaching her role out all wrong. If she wanted to release the album spontaneously like Beyonce, a lesser site would crash under the stampeding traffic. It’s as if Roc Nation underestimated Rihanna’s reach despite seeing the success of J. Cole. The success of Beyonce’s experiment isn’t enough to give RiRi the same treatment? Just put it out and watch the world fall underneath her spell. Again.

As I was writing this, the album spontaneously appeared. Imagine my surprise. It’s currently on Tidal but before then there were rumors that somehow it leaked prior to their stream. The supposed slip up came after the tracklisting accidentally was broadcasted with song snippets. It’s been a long, sloppy day over at the Tidal offices. I’m certain there will be jobs lost and applications to Apple Music filled out. It’s a bit disheartening that Tidal’s first, an exclusive release and Rihanna’s comeback album has been one slippery slope to hell when it should’ve been an escalator to heaven. But a little leak won’t hurt Rihanna’s sales, this has been an album that fans have waited four years for.

Is the music worth the wait? I’m not a Rihanna fan, I don’t remember the last time I gave her music a full listen, but I’m intrigued. Since I don’t have Tidal I attempted to acquire the album through...let's go with "other channels," and ended up pressing play on a song expecting Barbados Rihanna and instead got New Orleans Boosie. Let this be a lesson to you kids, always save your free trials for when it matters.

After one full listen of Anti, I’m a little surprised. The album is not what I expected and I went in with zero expectations. The first song is "Consideration," the beat surprised me because it sounds like vintage Tyler, The Creator. The dirty drums, those chords, this is clearly the Creator's sound from 2010-2011. I'm certain it's him but the credits say otherwise. SZA sounds great, Rihanna is singing unlike I'd ever heard her, I was grabbed from the beginning.

“James Joint,” the second track, sounds like something Syd and The Internet would make with Thundercat. I’m almost certain Rihanna is an undercover Odd Future stan. “Work” features a pretty dull Drake verse but the Caribbean/Island-esque dance song will be a huge hit. “Woo” would’ve been more fitting for Rae Sremmurd but it isn’t bad, the production is absolutely bananas. DJ Mustard’s contributed “Needed Me” and it sounds nothing like what you expect, very R&B influenced and reminds me of Kehlani.

Timbo brought out Ri’s sexy on “Yeah, I Said It” but the record doesn’t scream quiet storm like it could’ve. The song that caught me completely off guard is “Love On The Brain.” The power and passion that can be heard on “FourFiveSeconds” is completely unleashed. I’m not even positive if it’s Rihanna singing. That same power is completely out of control on “Higher,” turn your volume down for that one.

Rihanna is in a constant state of change, reinvention is her normal. I’m not incredibly well-versed in her music, but I’ve heard enough to know Anti is a step away from all the songs that were released previously. One listen and you understand why the other singles were left off. It’s not a flawless victory or an absolute disaster, and I'm certain you shouldn't spend $9,000 on headphones to get the Rihanna listening experience, but it is most definitely the return of an artist we can’t help but keep our eyes and ears on.

Rihanna is the biggest female pop star of her generation. Rihanna can't be stopped. Rihanna is back. Really, she never left.

By Yoh, aka Yoh Never Petty aka @Yoh31