Album Needs “Work:” Rihanna’s Newest Album Falls Flat

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 10 years since Rihanna first burst onto the mainstream music scene with “Pon de Replay,” a slick, punchy dance anthem that seemed to nestle itself into the set lists of every Top 40 radio station in America. “Pon de Replay” was generic, but harmless and in the following decade, Rihanna managed to find her unique sound over the course of six more platinum-selling albums, asserting herself as music’s number one alpha female. It’s been a little over three years since Rihanna’s last album and while that doesn’t seem like a huge amount of time, it’s important to keep in mind that the Barbadian pop star has never allowed more than two years to pass between releases. “Anti,” her seventh album, brings with it a lot of hype. That “Anti” is Rihanna’s least-mainstream release yet may explain the lengthened time gap, but unfortunately, the quality does not: this is Rihanna’s weakest effort yet.

In the year leading up to “Anti’s” release, Rihanna dropped four singles: “FourFiveSeconds” (featuring Kanye West and Paul McCartney), “Towards the Sun” (from the movie “Home”), “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “American Oxygen,” none of which earned spots in this new album’s thirteen-track list. Perhaps they weren’t grating or derivative enough for “Anti’s” standards, because just about every song on this album falls into at least one of these two categories. The album’s third track, “Kiss It Better,” is embedded squarely in both, with its generic ‘80s guitars and synths backing obnoxiously loud vocals.

When Rihanna does depart from her trademark vocal style, it’s usually in the service of sounding like one rapper or another. “Desperado” and “Needed Me” both see Rihanna performing her best Drake impression; Drake himself is on the album, but his feature spot in “Work” consists of a relatively boring sung verse. One of the weakest tracks is “Woo,” in which Rihanna’s voice is slathered in a shrill, heavy autotune a la Travis Scott as it scrapes over an instrumental that sounds like it’s being played from a broken speaker. None of those songs, however, hold a candle to the penultimate track, “Higher,” ironically the lowest point on the album. Rihanna bites off more than she can chew with this track, and the end result is a vocal performance that had me laughing the first time I heard it.

There are a few good tracks on here, including “James Joint” with its rubbery bass, and the more traditional R&B track “Love on the Brain.” Still, it’s a bit disheartening when the best song on an album is a cover song that makes minimal changes to the original; “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” a cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” features identical instrumentals and vocal effects. It’s more karaoke than cover song and there’s no reason to listen to it so long as the excellent original is available. Maybe one day, some cataclysmic event will render the original song unplayable; then, and only then, will Rihanna’s version be worth anything.

Here’s the bottom line: I subscribed to a free trial on Tidal to listen to this, and frankly, I’m upset about that. “Anti” has a few good tracks, but they don’t do much to save the album, nor do they justify any sort of membership towards Tidal. It’s hard not to respect Rihanna’s attempt at a more industrial sound, but it clearly didn’t pay off, and in this, “Anti” is much like Rihanna’s version of “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz:” proof that she should stick to harmless Top 40 tracks about bondage.