“I got to do things my own way, darling/Will you ever let me?/Will you ever respect me?” Rihanna asks in her native Barbadian patois on “Consideration,” the opening track of Anti. To say that the album, her first in over three years, has had a contentious road to release is an understatement, with reports of false starts and, eventually, the promotion of three singles that, though moderately successfully, failed to resonate with fans or critics the way her past hits have. And without missing a beat, Rihanna provides a pointed, unapologetic rejoinder to the rhetorical questions posed in the song’s lyrics: “No.”
But that the album’s first three singles, particularly the grating “FourFiveSeconds” and the dated “Bitch Better Have My Money,” were mercifully left off Anti points to a lack of creative vision, not to mention Rihanna and her label’s commitment to it (notably, the release is her first since parting ways with Def Jam). The early promise represented by “Consideration,” with its heavy, distorted ’90s-style loop and guest vocal by neo-soul singer SZA, suggested that Rihanna is determined to “grow.” But the remainder of Anti’s first half swiftly drifts into frustratingly familiar territory: “Needed Me” admirably aspires to FKA twigs’s brand of experimental R&B, but songs like “Kiss It Better” and “Woo,” with their plodding beats and menacing electric guitars, could have been plucked from Rated R or Unapologetic.
Anti’s second half finds Rihanna dabbling in previously unexplored genres, and to various degrees of success, never settling on a cohesive direction or clear statement of purpose aside from a decided denouncement of her dance-pop past. Rihanna makes a foray into psychedelic pop/soul on “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” a collaboration with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and ’60s doo-wop on “Love on the Brain,” potentially forgettable trifles that emerge as triumphant highlights among the drab, depressing R&B that comprises much of the rest of the album. The likewise retro-minded “Higher” is marred by a strained vocal performance, which, like that of “FourFiveSeconds,” consists of little more than pitchy, whisky-soaked shrieks.
The sense that the largely joyless Anti lacks focus is furthered by the fact that “Higher” and “James Joint,” which both clock in at under two minutes a piece, scan as mere sketches. The ultimate impression the album leaves isn’t just that of an artist who failed to follow through on her vision, but who never bothered to conceive one in the first place.