An anti-Rihanna album at the expense of being a Rihanna album.
Anti(2016) is the consensus pick for best Rihanna album, but when it came out it felt a little unsatisfying. She’d been gone for four years, her absence exacerbating her mystique and yielding feverish speculation on what her new music would be like. Her run of 2015-16 singles had been alright, “Bitch Better Have My Money” taking on pantheon status after people got over the fact that that was Rihanna’s new music. Out came the album, and it turned out not to be a grand comeback but a short, understated thing full of short sketches, generally lacking in gloss, featuring exactly none of her pre-release singles. A “deluxe” edition came out not long after, whose track “Sex With Me” would’ve been one of the best songs on Anti had it been part of its lineup. The world was still reeling from the endless, confusing rollout of Kanye’s Life of Pablo and the album-mixtape ambiguity stirred up by Drake and Young Thug. Anti seemed like another nail in the Spotifying coffin of the album, the totem around which rock-crit religion had revolved for half a century.
It turned out that the album format wasn’t dead yet. After the initial shock it became clear Anti is one of the singer’s strongest works (second, in my book, to 2010’s Loud). But it’s a startlingly roughshod album, and it doesn’t really need to be. So many of its songs end mid-sentence or feel like afterthoughts. That the album took its name from a negative Latin prefix used in art criticism for irreverent paradigm shifts (anti-folk, anti-pop, anti-Western) suggested a certain misanthropy, that upending our expectations was a prerequisite to enjoying the fruits of the singer’s labor. She had no obligation to stage a grand comeback, but Anti felt self-consciously not that, to its detriment: an anti-Rihanna album at the expense of being a Rihanna album.
This resequence doesn’t entirely fix the problem. The songs still cut out rudely, as if implying they end in the middle of the action but too afraid to commit to the concept; the lazy way in which songs tend to end in the 21st century is one of the less appetizing by-products of digital audio workstations. And the mess of songs that appeared before, on, and after Anti is rich but not consistent. This new cut excises a few of the album’s less developed songs and allows some of its buried gems to shine. It’s still anti-pop, but in a way that’s mischievous rather than mean-spirited.
1. “Sex With Me”
One of the strongest songs associated with Anti, its brewing-storm opening bars sound so much more like the intro to a pop album than “Consideration.” That’s a fine song whose mid-album placement brings out its punch and pep a little better, but as an opener it felt underwhelming: a self-consciously lo-fi beat, interrupted sharply by Rihanna’s harsh, hookless flow. Plus, if you’re going to call your album Anti, “Sex with me’s so amazing” is as good an opening line as you can hope for.
2. “Needed Me”
This feels like a shameless ploy for a hit on the part of both Rihanna and producer DJ Mustard, who by then was reduced to ripping off half-speed EDM-pop after the goons behind Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” ran off with his sound. It’s not one of the album’s more beloved songs, but it sounds good as track two, a hit the singer wanted to get out of the way before getting down to business, like Prince clearing his throat with “Little Red Corvette” before descending into the sex dungeons of side two.
3. “Kiss It Better”
Track three both on the original and this resequence, this delineates where the album starts playing with difficult emotions. Like “Love on the Brain,” it’s a power ballad that concerns the singer’s desire for a former partner who’s good enough in the sack to stir unwise old feelings, and it similarly dehumanizes its participants with the creepily deployed pronoun “it.” “Take it on back,” she begs, asking her partner to see her for what she has rather than who she is. She sees her ex as something to fuck rather than as a person, and if he can think that way about her, they might be able to get something going again. It’s one of her most startling songs, especially with superb vocal arrangements from Kuk Harrell and a beat that’s like the last embers of “Purple Rain” burning out into the earth.
It’s cruel to sequence the best pop song of the ‘10s after “Kiss It Better,” but Rih does it, and I shall be equally unsparing. Written by Jamaican-Canadian Drake affiliate Partynextdoor from his dancehall memories, “Work” is the jewel of the album and of Rihanna’s discography. It’s such a song, the kind that could be feasibly played on guitar but that, like the best Prince tracks, makes you wonder where the inspiration even came from. The individual details shine—that sunsplash of organ, the way the chorus cycles hopelessly around to its title, the unbelievable way she drops the Bajan patois on verse two and simply sings “tell you something please, baby don’t you leave.” But there’s something else throbbing at its heart, something spiritual and incomprehensible, a frightening flicker of life. I’m nowhere near the bottom of this song, but until I get there, it sounds great at track four.
To expand on the gut-punch of “Kiss It Better” and “Work” you’d need a song better than either, and none exist within the Anti bedrock. Better to take a hard left into abstraction.
6. “Never Ending”
Originally clustered at the album’s end with most of its other ballads, this appears here as a palette cleanser after “Woo.” It starts like a Mumford & Sons song and ends like the best ‘90s trip-hop ballad never made, which means it transitions rather nicely into our next track.
This collaboration with a soon-to-be-massive SZA doesn’t come on strong enough to be an intro or a radio-clobbering superhit, but it’s the kind of thing mid-album filler dreams are made of. Imagine if Help! had opened with “Tell Me What You See” or “You Like Me Too Much.”
An inexplicable bonus track halfway between Migos and Vanity 6’s “Make-Up, this works well in the middle as an interlude, a bit of mischief that reminds us what the singer’s capable of when she’s out on a limb. It resets your ears before she gets back to work.
9. “Love on the Brain”
This sublime slice of Al Green worship sounds wonderful after the electronic squall of “Pose,” and it wrenchingly drops us into the ballad mode in which Anti will remain after this. RiRi refers to her boyfriend as “it” here, and the fact that the last song sounds so much like robots adds another layer to her post-human mischief.
This spends two minutes pushing Rihanna’s voice to its extreme, which can be grating (see Loud’s “Complicated”) but here works as the shameless plea of a drunk seizing a moment of confidence. It’s like a Tom Waits song that somehow stumbled into the orbit of the world’s most glamorous pop star. I wish it was longer, but maybe it ends in the middle of the action because she’s realizing what a dumb thing she’s done.
11. “Close to You”
This gentle, anticlimactic ballad lets us slowly drift away from the emotional extremes RiRi touches on those last two tracks. The only better ending would be another ballad, and I’m sure as hell not putting “American Oxygen” there. Maybe everything else in the Anti camp can be bonus.
There’s not much more irritating than rhyming two Spanish words together in an English-language song unless you’re Chuck Berry doing “Rock ’n’ Roll Music,” and even he messed it up with that “piano” rhyme.
A harmless trifle, but a trifle nonetheless and hardly essential for the album’s cohesion.
“Same Ol’ Mistakes”
A lot of people will take issue with the omission of this seven-minute Tame Impala cover, especially the crowd that cares more about that band than Rihanna and got hooked on Anti because of this canny indie crossover. But it doesn’t seem like an efficient use of seven minutes, especially when she’s more or less singing over the original.
“Yeah, I Said It”
See “James Joint.”
Listen to Daniel’s version of Anti here: