Rihanna’s Anti Might Be the Beginning of the End for the Big Pop Album

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Rihanna’s new album Anti is not here for you. This will come as a disappointment to some listeners, and it will even strike plenty as unfair — a breach of the pop-star-and-fan contract, in which our attention and adoration are rewarded with a predictable and easily digestible product — but if you’ve paid even fleeting attention to anything Rihanna’s done in the past four years, Anti’s unaccommodating attitude should come as no surprise. In the time since her last studio album, 2012’s murky, trap-pop prophesy Unapologetic, the 27-year-old Barbadian artist born Robyn Fenty has found plenty of non-musical places (Instagram, red carpets, secluded beaches) to polish her crown as the High Priestess of Not Giving a Fuck. Clothing optional, blunt dangling from her lips, middle finger to the Lord: Rihanna has become a modern master of the pop image — a kind of post-digital James Dean. She proved this once again this past Monday, a few days before any mere mortal had heard her new album, when she tweeted a picture of herself wearing gilded, Swarovski-crystal-encrusted headphones and captioned it, “Listening to Anti.” A “Stars! They’re Just Like Us” moment this was not, and yet Dolce & Gabbana still sold out of those $9,000 headphones in less than 24 hours. But just as important to this image as the accessory was her gaze: sharply inward-focused, utterly unperturbed. If this photo — or quite literally any picture taken of Rihanna in the past four years — were a Kendrick Lamar song, it would be “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. Given Anti’s innumerable delays and its lax production schedule, it’s easy to forget that until pretty recently, Rihanna’s name was synonymous with “almost superhumanly prolific.” Between 2005’s peppy debut Music of the Sun and Unapologetic, Rihanna released an astonishing seven albums in eight years — though in hindsight, that feels less like an artistic achievement than a waste of energy, because Rihanna has never been an album artist. Her best singles, sure, have not only defined but rerouted the decade in pop music (I’d name “Umbrella,” “We Found Love,” and “Pour It Up” as the three most influential), but over a long-player, she had a tendency to lose steam. Rihanna albums sagged, lacked cohesion, and when they did fumble for an overarching theme, they did so in cheesy, outworn pop-album clichés, like the horror-movie sample that opens 2009’s Rated R and alerted us that this album was going to be “dark.” Still, historically, the single, not the album, has been pop music’s prime currency. The fact that Rihanna never made a great (or even very good) album did not make her a bad pop star, it just meant she was a pop star for whom the album wasn’t a sensible vehicle, or perhaps one for whom the album had become obsolete.

So the striking thing about Anti is that it works very well as an album — a good, old-fashioned front-to-back listening experience — and that it does not seem to be pandering to radio or the charts at all. “What should be the next single off Rihanna’s Anti?” a poll posted yesterday on Billboard’s website asks. This is a deeply silly question, almost deliciously beside the point. Anti is not a collection of would-be singles so much as an uncompromising evocation of an atmosphere. (Although, if you’re curious, 43 percent of voters said it should be the electric, Miguel-esque “Kiss It Better” — not a bad choice!)

Anti’s fantastic but unshowy opening track, “Consideration,” serves as a sonic manifesto. “I got to do things my own way, darling,” Rihanna sings atop a beat of stutter-stepping static before the underground R&B singer SZA assents, “When I look outside my window, I can’t get no peace of mind.” This refrain sets a mood: Anti is Rihanna’s most hermetic album, the chamber music of her inner sanctum. (Even the decision to cover Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” has an intimacy about it, like she’s singing along to a song she loves on the radio.) These songs don’t feel like they take place in the club or even in the outside world so much as in the often-solitary seclusion of Rihanna’s bedroom, where the air is kush-smoke thick and the door is only open to suitors who won’t get so attached that they can’t let her get back to work. So much of this record’s singular, cocksure attitude is an extension of one of the most memorable quotes from her recent, much-discussed New York Times Magazine interview: “Guys need attention. They need that nourishment, that little stroke of the ego that gets them by every now and then. I’ll give it to my family, I’ll give it to my work — but I will not give it to a man right now.”

To neatly classify Anti by genre, you’d have to invent one, and you could do worse than “industrial dancehall.” The island cadences of Rihanna’s delivery feel as loose as they’ve ever been, especially on the great, hypnotic single “Work,” but they often scrape up against rigid and even corrosive backing beats. The Hit-Boy-produced “Woo” sounds like it was fused together from some leftover Yeezus scrap metal, and the twangy “Desperado” — a convincing nod to outlaw country in spirit if not sound — sparks to the touch. There’s a texture to this album that Rihanna’s slickest singles have lacked; I love the growling bite she takes out of the word “desperaaaado,” and the curling Elvis lip she gives to the sumptuous throwback “Love on the Brain.” (Unfortunately, this song is preceded by Anti’s one true misstep, the light and maudlin “Never Ending,” the only track that reminds you that Rihanna once did a duet with Coldplay.)

Otherwise smartly sequenced, Anti does have an arc, though it’s one we’re more used to hearing from a man: Unsentimental loner-hero striking out alone, arranging sex as needed but avoiding any attachments that will get in the way of work (work work work work), but then, finally, exhaustingly, giving in to love right before the credits roll over the sunset. And for all its unconventionality, Anti has a beautiful Hollywood ending: “Love on the Brain” is playful and sublime, the piano ballad “Close to You” is wrenching without being corny, and best of all, there’s the penultimate “Higher,” a bluesy plea delivered in a chain-smoked croak. It’s gravelly, imperfect, and maybe the most affecting vocal performance Rihanna’s ever put to tape, seeing her promising turn in last year’s “FourFiveSeconds” and then giving it a few days’ less sleep.

And yeah, speaking of that song: It’s not on the album. Neither is “Bitch Better Have My Money” or the tepid “political” single “American Oxygen.” These omissions feel significant, not just to Rihanna’s evolving sound but to the future of the Pop Album in general. Anti is something smaller and stranger than was expected, and I like that about it. It’s not, like a Rihanna album might have been in the past, a definitive dumping ground for everything she’s been up to over the past four years. But that’s smart, because if it even tried to be, it certainly would have sagged under the weight of all that pressure. I have a feeling that Kanye West’s Waves — another album whose track list is much slimmer than it might have been — is about to do something similar. Anti feels like the beginning of the end of something we’ve been watching in slow motion for a very long time now: the death of the Big Album as a pop star’s primary means of artistic expression. There are so many other ways to consume Rihanna the Pop Star in 2016, and on Anti, she seems to find this freedom from the album as be-all, end-all statement liberating. I welcome the smaller, lighter, and more exploratory pop records that may spring up in its wake.

*A version of this article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.