Label: Roc Nation
Verdict: Botched release steals limelight from bold album
Haters, it's time to give Rihanna her dues. Seven albums into her chart-wrecking reign at the top and Robyn Fenty has entered rare air, a dominating pop culture force who is always there, always pouting, always sticking up her middle finger, ruling the mainstream while dissing it at the same time.
Over the past 10 years, she's done everything. Sexed-up R&B? Listen to 2009's Unfaithful, when she "murders" her lover with her infidelity. Club-friendly bangers? We Found Love and Only Girl in the World still sound like the big, bold anthems they are, years after the fact.
Pop hits that grabbed the zeitgeist? Thanks to Umbrella, you'll never say the name "Ella" the same way again. Saucy ballads, Jamaican-indebted reggae, brutal gangster rap, tick, tick, tick.
It's virtually impossible to imagine pop's broad landscape without Rihanna at the top. So it's easy to forget that right now, three years after the release of her last album, she's still only 27. As a guide, Lady Gaga is 29, Katy Perry is 31, Beyonce is 34, and Madonna is 57. Despite her impressive legacy, that means Rihanna's still one of the new kids on the pop queen block. And 27-year-olds are still capable of messing up. Big time.
Which is the only thing you can call the botched insanity surrounding Anti, her eighth album that leaked, and then was released for free, through Tidal, Jay-Z's struggling streaming service. After a disastrous 12 months of failed singles, Twitter spats and label woes, Anti arrives moments before becoming pop's version of Chinese Democracy. In other words, an industry joke.
Which is something of a shame. Ignore the preceding shambles, and this is Rihanna's most concise full-length yet. Her previous records were tied to that old industry model of using singles to sell albums. But right from the start, as Consideration's stuttering lope kicks in, Anti's different. It's the sound of Rihanna machete-hacking her way along a far more difficult path.
For starters, there are few radio singles, with only Work's low-key hooks and the folksy ballad Never Ending screaming potential hits. Instead, Anti feels more like a Drake record, with the focus less on big production, more on killer quotables. "There ain't nothing here for me anymore," she sings on the Western throwdown Desperado, a bass grind with a chorus that could refer to her previous chart success. On Woo, which is nothing more than a jarring riff and Travi$ Scott yelps, Rihanna's in fine form, taunting a lover with lines like, "Too bad she's just eating off your dreams / Let me know when you're ready to bleed." On Love on the Brain, she even gets her Amy Winehouse on, singing soulfully about "fist-fighting with fire" and reminding that underneath all that 'tude, there really is a powerful set of lungs.
But the line that will resonate most with her diehards is from Higher, Anti's last track. "I wanna go back to the old way," Rihanna sings, sounding like she's sipping whisky and singing regretfully through a smoky haze. Fans might want her to recreate the past, but Anti shows Rihanna knows the only way forward is freedom, no matter how hard it is to get.
- Chris Schulz
Panic! At The Disco, Death of a Bachelor
Artist: Panic! At The Disco
Album: Death of a Bachelor
Label: Fueled by Ramen
Verdict: Brendon Urie comes back swinging
Panic! At the Disco is back and so is the exclamation point.
Though Brendon Urie is now the only official member left, Panic!'s fifth album hits harder than ever before with Urie - playing almost every instrument himself - swirling together elements of alternative rock, pop, swing, hip-hop and emo.
The album's title track has a big band, blue-eyed soul vibe, layering horns over top of a deep beat machine, with Urie's smooth crooning voice fitting in perfectly. Hallelujah is the stand-out anthem with its waves of catchy hooks and a gospel chorus.
The track has a redemptive positivity to it, with lyrics "Then the time for being sad is over / And you miss 'em like you miss no other / And bring blue is better than being over it."
Elsewhere, Emperor's New Clothes is a delightful mess of sound and Crazy = Genius, is a high paced swing song, bringing in a pop punk guitar heavily through the chorus, while Victorious delivers energetic emo-rock riffs. The emo lyrics of LA Devotee ("You got two black eyes from loving too hard / And a black car that matches your blackest soul / I wouldn't change ya, oh, oh") contrast beautifully with the swift power pop.
Every song on Death of a Bachelor brings its own style, arranged to take you through a rollercoaster of music.
This record delivers what old Panic! fans have been waiting for and the potential to attract new followers.
- Rachel Bache
Sia, This Is Acting
Album: This Is Acting
Verdict: Emotionally hollow and overwrought
Writing songs for other people, inhabiting their pop personas, creating roles - these are things Sia is good at. There's no doubt she has strong songwriting chops - she's written solid hits for other people (Beyonce, Rihanna et al), and there were a few songs from her previous album 1000 Forms of Fear, which was written for herself, which managed to be vulnerable and raw, as well as bombastic pop songs.
But making a new album from songs you wrote for other people that didn't make the cut - that's perhaps not the smartest creative decision. And that's what Sia has openly admitted she's done with This Is Acting, which has lead to an album that simply feels a little emotionally hollow, while also being overwrought.
The first single Alive is a case in point. It comes off like an overdose of screaming that doesn't make the song feel dramatic or authentic, just annoying. In fact there are far too many vocal gymnastics throughout the album, which just makes the songs all sound the same.
Sure there are varied tempos, rhythms, harmonic ideas, melodies, but the album still sounds remarkably homogenous - every song has the same emotional beat, and she uses such similar musical tropes throughout they feel almost computer-generated. Plus, because she didn't write these songs for herself, they don't always show her (sometimes grating and overly melodramatic) voice in the best light.
It's a shame because underneath it all there are some interesting musical ideas and combinations, they're just tainted by the histrionics of the delivery.
- Lydia Jenkin
Savages, Adore Life
Album: Adore Life
Verdict: If you must do post-punk rock 'n' roll, here's how
At this distance it was easy to be sceptical about the British music press embracing Savages and their album-cum-manifesto Silence Yourself three years ago. The all-women quartet - who asked people not to take photos at their shows and are thrilling live by all accounts - delivered a bellicose take on Siouxsie and the Banshees/Penetrations/post-punk thrash which was undeniably passionate, if familiar.
In that regard not a lot has changed except here the intensity feels more raw and real, the influences worn more comfortably.
The songs mixed by electronica producer Trentemoller are frequently white-knuckle tight and the tough socio-political messages are about love in its many manifestations (tension, sex, need, sadism, rage).
And amid the fury - sometimes like Patti Smith fronting Gang of Four turned up to 11 - are the brooding and distorted ballad Adore, the more measured Slowing Down the World and percussive I Need Something New, and the surprisingly poppy (albeit duffed up) Surrender. The five-minute closer Mechanics is like an industrial-strength, slow-burning and yearning tone poem.
So when placed alongside that debut, Adore Life has more texture and depth, and is the better for it.
If you wonder what the Savages' fuss was about, here's the fuss.
- Graham Reid (elsewhere.co.nz)