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After giving the world a decade of nonstop hits, the big question for Rihanna was “What’s next?” Well, she was going to wait a little longer than expected to reveal the answer. Four years separated Unapologetic and her eighth album. But she didn’t completely escape from the spotlight during the mini hiatus. Rather, she experimented in real time by dropping one-off singles like the acoustic folk “FourFiveSeconds” collaboration with Kanye West and Paul McCartney, the patriotic ballad “American Oxygen,” and the feisty “Bitch Better Have My Money.” The sonic direction she was going to land on for ANTI was still murky, but those songs were subtle hints nonetheless. When she officially unleashed ANTI to the world, it quickly became clear that this wasn’t the Rihanna we’d come to know from years past. In an unexpected twist, the singer tossed her own hit factory formula (which she polished to perfection since her 2005 debut) out the window. No, this was a freshly independent Rihanna who intentionally took time to dig deep. As the world was holding its breath awaiting the new album, she found a previously untapped part of her artistry. ANTI says it all in the title: The album is the complete antithesis of Pop Star Rihanna. From the abstract cover art (which features a poem written in braille) to newfound autonomy after leaving her longtime record label, Def Jam, to form her own, ANTI shattered all expectations of what a structured pop album should sound like—not only for her own standards, but also for fellow artists who wanted to demolish industry rules. And the risk worked in her favor: it became the singer’s second No. 1 LP. “I got to do things my own way, darling/Will you ever let me?/Will you ever respect me?” Rihanna mockingly asks on the opening track, “Consideration.” In response, the rest of the album dives headfirst into fearlessness where she doesn’t hesitate to get sensual, vulnerable, and just a little weird. ANTI’s overarching theme is centered on relationships. Echoing Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope, Rihanna details the intricacies of love from all stages. Lead single “Work” is yet another flirtatious reunion with frequent collaborator Drake as they tease each other atop a steamy dancehall bassline. She spits vitriolic acid on the Travis Scott-produced “Woo,” taunting an ex-flame who walked away from her: “I bet she could never make you cry/’Cause the scars on your heart are still mine.” What’s most notable throughout ANTI is Rihanna’s vocal expansion, from her whiskey-coated wails on the late-night voicemail that is “Higher” to breathing smoke on her rerecorded version of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” Yet the signature Rihanna DNA remained on the album. The singer proudly celebrated her Caribbean heritage on the aforementioned “Work,” presented women with yet another kiss-off anthem with “Needed Me,” and flaunted her erotic side on deluxe track “Sex With Me.” Ever the sonic explorer, she also continued to uncover new genres by going full ’50s doo-wop on “Love on the Brain” and channeling Prince for the velvety ’80s power-pop ballad “Kiss It Better.” ANTI is not only Rihanna’s brilliant magnum opus, but it’s also a sincere declaration of freedom as she embraces her fully realized womanhood.
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