Rihanna’s dual life as an assassin with a plush heart has made her an idol and the worthy subject of various unhinged RIHports on this site. On records, she seems well aware of her power and yet too often welcomes, succumbs to and agonizes over poisonous men in a mutually damaging cycle. Many of her songs have focused on the seductive pull of toxic relationships, and the weight of dependency. And most of her No. 1 hits, if not about sex, concern a fantastically life-saving or eternally destructive romance: “SOS,” “Diamonds,” “We Found Love.” Rihanna seems designed to fall into old torturous habits.
This failure of strength, while making her music intoxicating, tends to normalize her from the badass Rihanna we see on social media, a persona that’s gradually melded with her music, first on Good Girl Gone Bad and, more genuinely, on 2012's Unapologetic. There’s even less surrendering and more seizing of moments on ANTI, which is so unexpectedly chill that it’s alarming, and solidly aligns with Rihanna’s public identity. It’s as sexy, merciless and perpetually faded as we presume her to be. Its aspirational in its bluntness and still can’t help being hopeless.
A pair of songs perfectly illustrate that inner friction: “Needed Me” and “Love on the Brain.” In the former, Rihanna feels nothing but apathy toward a clingy dude. It’s hard not to hear it and think of Drake, in part because the dazed and distorted DJ Mustard rhythm reminds you of a Drake beat when he’s in a state of affliction. There’s an almost graceful ease with which Rihanna dipped in and out of her relationship with Drake, reducing him to a needy puddle. Whatever they were, it seemed to exist on her terms. He openly admitted she broke his heart (“I was hurt because I slowly started to realize what it was,” he told Elle. “I guess I thought it was more.”) Rihanna knows many men in this world are dying to be associated with her, even if it hurts, and that she’d in turn never be defined solely by those experiences. That’s the idea here when she sings with pure disregard:
I was good on my own, that’s the way it was
You was good on the low for a faded fuck, on some faded love
Shit, what the fuck you complaining for?
Feeling jaded, oh?
Don’t get it twisted
You was just another nigga on the hit list
Trying to fix your inner issues with a bad bitch
Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?
Such a flip-off (among the multitudes on ANTI) seems to acknowledge that the point of a good Rihanna song, many of them anyway, is to find myriad ways to say fuck you, creating a status arsenal for vexed millennials who see Rihanna as a receptacle for bad bitchisms and clapback inspiration. When Matt Barnes made an ill-advised implication that he was dating Rihanna, she shut him down, to ether levels, with a series of hashtags, including #thedevilisaliar #shesnotthatintoyou #shesnotintoyouatall and #shesneverevenmetyou. Similarly, she sings on “Work”: “You mistaking the love I gave to you for foundation.” And: “Stop thinking you’re the only option” (“Same Ol Mistakes”). And: “Up against the wall, we don’t need a title” (“Yeah I Said It”).
“Love on the Brain,” on the other hand, embraces the baffling back-and-forth of destruction and euphoria in relationships that somehow makes them real. It’s old school, raspy and beautiful: “Babe, I’m fist-fighting with fire just to get close to you/And I’ll run for miles just to get a taste.” Vocally, it’s agonizing, and one of the handful of songs I’ve kept on repeat, along with the album opener “Consideration” (featuring SZA), “Kiss It Better” and “Yeah, I Said It” (two slow jams made for couch sex or something) and the Tame Impala cover “Same Ol’ Mistakes.”
There’ve been more overtly sexual Rihanna songs and albums than ANTI, where the vibe is understated and sex is more of a diversion. (On “James Joint,” she sings, “Don’t say that you miss me/Just come get me.”) These are tracks that make you do a lazy twerk or drunken sway. That the druggy tempo ultimately works (if you’re willing to tuck away dance-Rihanna for a few moments and, also, if you completely skip the Travis Scott-inspired/co-written joint “Woo”) is impressive, given that ballads were never her strong suit. Calmer records like “Unfaithful,” “California King Bed” and “Hate That I Love You” were always my least favorite and the most dreaded part of her otherwise animated albums. Fortunately, vocal work has made Rihanna better at manipulating the scratchy part of her voice that intensifies “Bitch Better Have My Money” and, in this case, songs like “Higher,” which is incredible in its commitment to a raspiness that borders on strained (I can’t see her singing it consistently in concert). Other times, her voice is the definition of indifference, like the near slurred, accented delivery on “Work” that sounds like she’s in the middle of a deep thought and suddenly stopped caring about articulating it.
All of this just works. Male R&B turned so grimy in the past three years that it’s been hard for the casual fan to avoid catchy bitter anthems about faceless women. Chris Brown’s “Loyal” was the biggest R&B song of 2013, while The Weeknd, whose M.O. is discarding women as sex toys, zoomed to become the biggest pop star of 2015. The shift spurred gentlemanly artists like John Legend and Ne-Yo to claim (partially as a marketing play) that the genre had become less about romancing and that more men could save it. Perhaps that’s not what it needed at all, but rather the re-introduction of someone who could put them in their place with a slow, exact slice.
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