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#ANTIclimactic: A Fond Farewell to the Rihanna You Knew (For Now)

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At some point over the past three (or is it four now?) years, Rihanna‘s ANTI went from just another “hotly anticipated follow-up” to something of a myth.

By the time Sia revealed that Rih was still hitting the songwriter up for potential songs to record for her eighth studio album as recently as mid-December — in the middle of a reported $25 million Samsung deal involving a mobile site experience filled with mystery rooms and keys linked to incredibly involved in-person adventures — the album’s very existence seemed questionable.

Yet here it is, floating around the Internet after being accidentally uploaded a few hours early by Tidal (of course it was Tidal) — and it’s probably not what you were expecting.

For years, The Rihanna Machine worked without flaw: A lead single in the fall; an album of certified smash hits out just before the end of the year. “Russian Roulette” led directly into Rated R, “Only Girl (In The World)” lead into Loud, “We Found Love” into Talk That Talk and “Diamonds” into Unapologetic. With each era, she shifted the sound of radio. Promotional photos revealed a new Rih each time — the cold, metallic sheen of Rated R; the vibrant redheaded Loud island diva; the cocky, lip-licking brat on Talk That Talk. It was exciting. Fresh. In every aspect of the campaign, she never once dropped the ball.

ANTI is different, messy release execution aside: It’s drowsy. Dreamy. Pretty. Moody. Screechy. (Dear lord, “Higher.”) Stoned as hell. Boring. Forgettable. And above all, not a Top 40 pop record.

“That’s the point!” you yell. “It’s called ‘ANTI’!Get it? ANTI-whatever you were expecting. Great. Heavy-handed message received.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that Rihanna wanted to break away from the pop machine she so expertly worked for years. Plenty of prolific pop icons have made the very same move in the past: Madonna, Janet Jackson, BeyoncéMandy Moore.

So, yes, Rihanna finally broke the machine.

But then what? What’s Rihanna The Pop Star without the radio-ready hooks and eh, eh, eh, na, na, na-ing on top of Caribbean pulsations? What’s the inverse of “We Found Love” or “What’s My Name” or “Hard” or “Disturbia” or “Umbrella”? What’s ANTI everything we loved about her music in the first place?

The answer, apparently, is a moody series of half-baked Tinashe mixtape demos, an interlude, an uninspired ‘cover’ of a Tame Impala song that isn’t even a year old which treats the original like an instrumental, a sprinkling of mumbly dancehall, an Amy Winehouse-y doo-wop moment and pretty piano ballads — all great background music for getting high, having sex or soaking in a bath, sure — but not the typical pop salvation of Rihsus.

ANTI is a fine album (“fine” at best), but forgive me for being slightly underwhelmed by the woman who once gave us “Rude Boy.” (And “Cold Case Love,” my God.)

Going left doesn’t necessarily mean the music is better, and none of these sounds are particularly groundbreaking or new — it’s just new for Rihanna. The Weeknd, Jhene Aiko, BANKS, SZA, Tinashe — they’ve all been doing variations of this (but better). Let’s also not make this about the album being too slow for a simple, impatient mind to process: Rihanna’s slowest moments are all prime Rih, from “Unfaithful” to “The Last Song” to “Stay.”

If her vision for this record was clear from the start, then she’s been purposely misleading the Navy for over a year, because all three songs she released prior to the album’s release — “FourFiveSeconds (feat. Kanye West & Paul McCartney),” “American Oxygen,” and, most disrespectfully of all, “Bitch Better Have My Money” — are nowhere to be found. Oh, and deluxe track “Goodnight Gotham,” the Florence + The Machine-sampling song that everyone was all excited about? Yeah, it’s just over a minute long and includes none of Rihanna’s vocals. The producer of the song is just as confused.

I got to do things my own way darling,” she declares on opening track “Consideration” with SZA, who trashed Rihanna’s vocal skills only a few years ago.

It’s funny that Rihanna’s “own way” as an ANTI-pop star involves exactly the same amount of writing camps and high profile songwriter hands on deck: There are eight co-writers on “Work.” There are ten co-writers on “Needed Me.” DJ Mustard is still on the beat. So what’s really ANTI, aside from the fact that most of songs don’t feel finished?

Rihanna was our unfailing pop hero for years. Of course, she’s got every right to indulge in her ANTI-pop fantasy if she wants, but nobody on her team — especially not Rih herself — should be surprised if the reaction is tepid from a listening audience with “S&M” on their gym playlists. (But hey, at least “Kiss It Better” is great.)

Whether this is a brief detour or the start of formally leaving her commercial pop past behind, who knows? She’s Rihanna — she does whatever the phuck she pleases, which is one of the many reasons why she’s such an incredible pop star.

Perhaps she’ll go ANTI-ANTI and make game-changing pop once again with R9. Cheers..I’ll drink to that.

20 Things Rihanna Did Before Releasing ANTI


Next: Rihanna's 'ANTI' Is Here

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