That Tame Impala cover isn’t the most surprising thing about Rihanna’s new album ‘ANTI’

ANTI is Rihanna’s most low-key and hit free record to date, but that’s exactly what makes it so interesting says RICHARD S HE.

Rihanna’s last album, 2012’s Unapologetic, was her seventh release in eight years. It spanned every conceivable kind of “Rihanna song”: trap-R&B, island reggae, piano ballads, even a disturbingly cheerful Chris Brown duet – and it more or less exhausted all her musical possibilities. From 2005 to 2012, Rihanna never left the spotlight for long enough for us to put her achievements into perspective. When she eventually releases a greatest hits collection, we’ll finally get the chance to reassess that breathless run of singles. It probably won’t include a single track from ANTI. And that’s just fine.

ANTI demands repeat listens, not because it’s catchy, but because its softest moments are its most compelling

From the title down, ANTI is a statement of defiance. Where Adele and Taylor Swift avoid streaming services, forcing fans to pay up, Rihanna gave away a million downloads of her album before it even went on sale. As a product, that makes ANTI a loss leader to promote TIDAL subscriptions, sponsored by Samsung. But Rihanna’s no sellout; she makes corporations work for her. More importantly, people are still talking about the music itself. That’s everything Rihanna does: supreme confidence, with the sense that she doesn’t give a fuck either way.

Unlike most of her contemporaries, Rihanna’s matured into a true vocalist – a great storyteller through song, in the sense of Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Adele. ANTI is the first time she’s foregrounded the lyrics – she has a songwriting credit on every track, bar the odd Tame Impala cover.

But of course, ‘Work’ – the first single and most commercial song here – immediately breaks the mold. Over a stuttering, minimal beat, Rihanna turns her Caribbean lilt into a Young Thug-like, only half-intelligible stream of syllables. Even Drake’s verse goes with the flow; he’s less guest vocalist than dance partner. The thing is, Rihanna’s drunken slur on ‘Work’ renders it uncoverable, a nursery rhyme at best. But it’s a deliberate choice. Pop radio will play it anyway. Clearly, she’s not concerned about being misunderstood.

ANTI is about feeling like a recluse, away from the outside world. Its only crowd-pleaser, the bubblegum stadium rock of ‘Kiss It Better’, is an instant classic – but otherwise, atmosphere rules over obvious hooks. As she confesses on ‘James Joint’, “I’d rather be smoking weed” – and that smoke seeps into everything. Moody alternative R&B dominates the album’s first half, and none of it’s built for the club. It’s as if the whole world is a bedroom with the curtains closed.

‘Same Ol’ Mistakes’, a cover of Tame Impala’s ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’, is bound to offend indie purists. But Rihanna has nothing to say about the state of alternative music. In fact, she changes almost nothing but the title. Rihanna and Kevin Parker are both famous pop musicians. Deal with it. What is intriguing, though, is how two artists can cast an identical song in a different light.

As the last track on Tame Impala’s Currents, it’s about self-doubt, the fear that we never really change. It ends an otherwise optimistic album with a question mark. But as track nine on ANTI, it’s the album’s turning point, where Rihanna finally looks at herself, and decides everything might be okay after all.

Drake and The Weeknd have built their whole careers around glamourising the dark side of celebrity, but Rihanna has no time for the self-loathing of rich men. On ANTI, Rihanna doesn’t find herself through sex, debauchery or fame – just kushed nights spent alone with music. Druggy alt-R&B gives way to the ‘60s soul of ‘Love on the Brain’ and ‘Higher’. By the album’s end, she emerges from that smoky bedroom, ready to give herself over to her lover. But more importantly, she’s ready to be “Rihanna” again, that public persona we all know, on her own terms.

ANTI makes for an underwhelming first listen. Pop albums are typically criticised for being singles plus filler, but ANTI is the photo negative – it’s all “filler”. It demands repeat listens, not because it’s catchy, but because its softest moments are its most compelling. It forces you to consider Rihanna as a musician, not a celebrity.

As alienating followups to hit records go, ANTI is no 808s & Heartbreak – it doesn’t invent a new genre from scratch. But it adds a new career move to the popstar’s bag of tricks: the spontaneous release that actually lowers your expectations. After four years between albums, after ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, it’s the last thing anyone expected from Rihanna. It’s thrilling because it’s anticlimactic.

Sharks never stop swimming, and popstars never stop shifting identities. Repetition is stagnation is death. After ANTI, it’s truly impossible to predict where Rihanna will go next. And that’s even more exciting than the album itself.

Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture writer. Tweet your grievances to @Richaod.