There's a wrong way to interpret this new Rihanna album: "I don't hear any radio hits; therefore we must be in the presence of great art."
Not the case. But we should forgive those kinds of reflexive rationalizations. Rihanna is the most beguiling pop star of her era, so it's only natural that we should want to shovel heaps of significance onto her just-fine eighth album, Anti.
Anti-what? Anti-whatever-you-were-expecting. Everyone thought that this would be the big one - the album that would finally funnel all of Rihanna's charisma, defiance, abandon and mystique into one perfect beam of laser light. It was expected to drop months ago, but didn't, surely because it was a masterpiece worthy of a few more minutes in the oven.
What finally leaked into the bandwidth on Wednesday night was something far more strange: the very first Rihanna album without hits. In their place? Lots of nice, mid-tempo songs heated up to varying degrees of lukewarmth. As a whole, they make Rihanna sound unfocused and untethered (which is not the same as sounding adventurous, or curious, or carefree).
So she remains a complicated superstar for complicated times, a singer we hold both incredibly high and incredibly close. The same people who talk about Rihanna like she's God also talk about how badly they wish they could smoke weed with her. That's weird.
Also weird: How she's cheered for being so uncompromising while her songbook is so rotten with compromises. How is the assassin behind We Found Love the same person responsible for (Cheers) Drink to That?
Massive hit singles are the fuel for Rihanna's fame machine, but her albums have always been spotty. All seven of her previous discs each have at least two brain-eating tunes, and the rest is mostly melodic coagulant. Anti, on the other hand, has a different kind of consistency, and everything good comes with an asterisk.
There's a jazzy zig-zag, but it ends too soon (James Joint.). There's a juicy sex-jam, but it goes on for too long (Kiss It Better). There's a left-field karaoke cover of the rock band Tame Impala (Same Ol' Mistakes), but it goes on for way too long. After that, into a sequence of mawkish ballads where Rihanna pushes herself to the edges of her voice - and why flex here on the album's blandest fare? Mysteries wrapped in mysteries.
As ever, the woman is at her most dynamic when she's asserting herself. The sci-fi reggae of Work sounds like clean music to do dirty things to, while the cold-hearted grind of Needed Me comes closest to the edge that we all assumed Rihanna owned property on.
At best, these songs provide blurrier images of a singer we already know, but a particularly telling lyric pops up during Yeah, I Said It, in which Rihanna promises to sanctify a sexual encounter with a photographic souvenir: "Take it home on your camera phone."
Purposeful or not, that line is a reminder that, since the release of her last album in 2012, Rihanna has been cultivating her fame on Instagram, a platform she has mastered like no other pop star. She's learned to best communicate with the greater universe through photographs, using them to establish intimacy and mystery, the yin and yang of pop superstardom.
That doesn't make Rihanna a narcissist so much as a pathfinder - an artist who has learned to control her media narrative through the power of her own images. Andy Warhol always knew that our desire to be seen was really just our desire to feel represented, and Rihanna knows it, too.
And when artists are given this kind of control over their image, the image can remain fluid. David Bowie's death recently reminded us that pop stars are expected to tweak their identities with every new album cycle, but in a faster, more fragmented world, today's young phenoms transform themselves from song to song, selfie to selfie. That helps to explain our fascination with Rihanna, before and after Anti. When there's no fixed image to uphold, every moment carries a sense of possibility.
We're reminded that we're allowed to remake ourselves - even when it's Rihanna remaking herself into someone who makes less-thrilling pop music.
- Washington Post