From the start of her career in 2005 to 2012’s Unapologetic, Rihanna had released or re-released at least one album annually. Every new radio chart topping single would be immediately replaced with the next, with 4+ Rihanna singles a year, and in the case of her record Good Girl Gone Bad, receiving two deluxe edition remixes and “reloaded” versions.
Thus, when 2013 hit and Unapologetic didn’t have a follow up, we were all left with a gap in the female pop vocal world. Where was the new Rihanna album? Where was our next “Pon De Replay,” our “Don’t Stop the Music,” “Disturbia,” “We Found Love,” our “Stay,” our “Diamonds?” In the time of Rihanna’s absence from 2013-2015 the female pop vocal world went on, of course we still had Beyonce, Lorde, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and newcomers galore, but there was always that gap, patiently waiting for Rihanna’s return.
2015 rolls around and after Kanye West excites the internet with “Only One (feat. Paul McCartney)” on New Year’s Day, a month later “FourFiveSeconds” is released, a track boasting Kanye West, Paul McCartney & Rihanna. Though speculated to be the second single on Kanye’s new record at the time, it was also rumored to be on Rihanna’s next project (though neither made it onto either record). The two following singles, “American Oxygen” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” were also rumored singles that didn’t make the final cut. After some record label switches, album release delays, Samsung rumors, and a digital app called ANTIdiaRy, highlighting her previous albums, ANTI was finally released on January 28th, 2016.
When talking of the themes present on ANTI, I think it’s important to mention not only what the critics have described as the central workings of the record, but also what Rihanna herself has written about the creation of the album, and to compare both to the record’s lyrics and sound. On ANTI, Rihanna continues the “I’m a bad bitch” mentality that she’s always had, but over the chilled out and cold but repetitive production of the music.
This time around, her sexually empowered and driven character actually comes off a bit too try-hard. Under her “fuck-off” attitude lies a semblance of feelings of disappointment and self-isolation that round out the rest of the topics covered on ANTI, but either through lyric choice or track listing, it all sounds very in-cohesive. This feeling of a disjointed narrative also partially stems from Rihanna’s own writing of her work. In the liner notes of ANTI sits this poem, that her and poet Chloe Mitchell wrote titled If They Let Us:
“I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood.
It is simply because what I want to say,
what I need to say, won’t be heard.
Heard in a way I so rightfully deserve.
What I choose to say is of so much substance
That people just won’t understand the depth of my message.
So my voice is not my weakness,
It is the opposite of what others are afraid of.
My voice is my suit and armor,
My shield, and all that I am.
I will comfortably breath in it, until I find the moment to be silent.
I live loudly in my mind, so many hours of the day.
The world is pin drop sound compared to the boom
That thumps and bumps against the walls of my cranium.
I live it and love it and despise it and I am entrapped in it.
So being misunderstood, I am not offended by the gesture, but honored.
If they let us…”
When tying this poem into the lyrics and discussed themes of the record, it all becomes very disconnected and a bit convoluted. My take on ANTI is that there is no central working “theme” or even a real method to the madness. I see ANTI as a musical snapshot of Rihanna – everything she’s feeling, wants to express, wants to be, her hopes, desires, shortcomings, mindset, and entire personality. ANTI is meeting Rihanna through the medium of her music and it comes out disjointed and confusing because it’s hard to describe your entire self in 13 songs. We all know what it’s like when we get that “describe yourself in 100 words or less” prompts. We can’t get everything in there. On ANTI, Rihanna tries to get everything in there.
“I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood,” Rihanna wrote in If They Let Us, the poem above, “so being misunderstood, I am not offended by the gesture, but honored. If they let us…” The key to the misunderstanding is the “if they let us….” What might have been a finishing line of empowerment, to me is more of a message toward the critics and audience of the record. ANTI to Rihanna is more about “do you like me?” than “do you like my new record?” My opinion of ANTI is one that highlights this difference between artist’s intention previous to the work and what we, the audience, can see and understand of the work post its creation. Consequently, it appears that I’m interested in the themes and analysis of ANTI more than the actual material.