Monday 8 February 2016

Review of 'Anti' by Rihanna

Everyone’s favourite Bajan fashion icon and chart-topper Rihanna has decided to go ‘alternative’. It seems no pop star wants to release a yucky pop album any more. Lady Gaga showed she’d had enough when she dropped the vaguely arty Artpop. BeyoncĂ© followed swiftly after with her self-titled progressive r&b record – many songs getting lyrically personal and extending the five minute mark. And who could forget Miley’s more recent exploration into psychadelia featuring The Flaming Lips and a song about a dead blowfish?

It seems being alternative has – rather contradictorily – become popular. The problem is that too many pop stars also think it’s easy. They mistake success and artistic merit as similarly achievable things. They’re not. Just because you can drop a number-one hit doesn’t mean you’re also capable of achieving a 10 on Pitchfork. No-one can achieve a 10 on Pitchfork. It’s like trying to eat a doughnut without getting sugar on your lips – physically impossible.

It’s perhaps this naivety that has led many alternative-sounding albums from pop stars to sound obnoxious, uninspired or a bit of both. I expected much the same from this new Rihanna album. The single, ‘Work’, certainly lived up to my expectations of obnoxiousness.

Workworkworkworkwork’ – what kind of cheap hook is that? It’s just repeating a single word over and over again until it sticks. At least, the left-field synthy beat is fairly cool.

It turns out there are a lot of nice quirky instrumentals on this album. From the jazzy electric keys of ‘James Joint’ to the Travis-Scott-produced stomping dissonant chords of ‘Woo’, the record definitely feels legitimately alternative.

Travis Scott looking happy to be working with Rihanna

And thankfully there aren’t actually many annoying hooks like ‘Work’ on the remainder of the record, if any hooks at all.

Rihanna’s voice is certainly prominent on these songs, but she dedicates more time to showing off the range of her voice than composing catchy choruses. Whether she’s sticking to her roots employing a Caribbean dancehall tone or experimenting with a traditional Motown croon as on ‘Love on The Brain’, she’s pushing her voice – which is more than I can say for most mainstream musicians.

This diversity makes up for the lack of earworms and dance numbers. Most of the songs are at a mid-tempo pace, but Rihanna’s attempts to tackle different styles makes each track unique from the last. Even when the tracks start to settle instrumentally for banal balladry towards the back-end of the record, Rihanna makes up for this by romping up the power in her vocals. ‘Higher’ is a short string-led number made interesting by Rihanna’s heartfelt belting, whilst soft piano number ‘Close to You’ contains some of the singer’s most intimate crooning yet.  

Me being blown away by Rihanna's singing on 'Higher'

And the lyrics aren’t embarrassing either. There’s no ‘Mary Jane Holland’ like Gaga. There’s no ‘Can I lick your skittles?’ like Bey. There’s no ‘Why they put the dick in the pussy?’ like Miley. Written mostly by Rihanna herself with the exception of a Tame Impala cover midway through, there surprisingly isn’t a single cringeworthy line. Okay, ‘Work’ is pretty crap, but otherwise Rihanna knows how to be witty. Indeed she isn’t afraid to be rude often using colourful language, but even these moments are funny rather than tasteless: ‘Let me cover your shit in glitter’.

So there we have it, I liked a Rihanna album. Shoot me. Perhaps the singer will continue down this left-field path in the future. Given Anti is already destined for the top of the charts, her choice to not go mainstream has clearly still paid off.