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Adam R. Holz

Album Review

Rihanna has built her career on juggernaut pop earworms over the course of the last 11 years, including No. 1 hits “S.O.S.,” “Umbrella,” “Disturbia,” “Only Girl (in the World),” “We Found Love,” and “Diamonds.” (And that’s not even a complete list of her chart-toppers, let alone her many other charting singles).

Anti doesn’t sound like any of those songs.

Slurred lyrics smear boundaries between genres—R&B, hip-hop, rock, electronica, alternative—in a way that screams “passion project,” not “radio colossus.” Indeed, even a cursory glance at critics’ responses uncovers phrases such as “deliberately uncommercial” (Entertainment Weekly), “interesting artistic curveball” (Boston Globe), and “leftfield, stoned and strange” (The Telegraph).

So let me add two more adjectives to that litany: sexualized and sad.

Pro-Social Content

“Same Ol’ Mistakes” unpacks inner conflict between Rihanna’s longing for newness in her life and heart (“Feel like a brand-new person/ … I finally know what is love”) and a nagging awareness of her propensity to repeat poor decisions (“But you make the same old mistakes/ … Stop before it’s too late”). Though she’s almost definitely not alluding to the Apostle Paul’s tug-of-war spiritual struggles in Romans 7, Rihanna’s raw depiction of the two sides of her heart—one that hopes for the best (“going with what I always longed for”) and the other that knows she’s rationalizing bad decisions (“I know you think it’s fake/Maybe fake’s what I like”)—certainly evokes that biblical truth. She wonders honestly, “So how do I know that it’s right?/ … So how will I know I’ve gone too far?”

A sense of vulnerable longing for intimacy fills “Close to You.” And “Consideration” tells a guy, “I got to do things/My own way, darling/Will you ever let me?/Will you ever respect me? No/ … Why will you never let me grow?” “Work” articulates this unmet longing: “All that I wanted from you was to give me something that I never had,” but nevertheless promises, “If I get another chance to/I will never, no never neglect you.” “Never Ending” tries hard to believe again in love (“It doesn’t have to feel so strange/To be in love again”).

Objectionable Content

Two themes rise to the surface on Anti: sex and drugs. “Kiss It Better” relies on the former to smooth over a conflict, with Rihanna cooing to her lover, “Mmm, do what you gotta do, keep me up all night.” Elsewhere on the song, she says that the arguing they do doesn’t ultimately matter because their sex “feels like crack.” “James Joint” blends kissing, marijuana and vulgarity, while booty-call song “Higher” involves a drunk Rihanna asking her beau over for a drink, to “smoke a J” and whatever else might happen. “Never Ending” longs for love but confesses that Rihanna is so blitzed on “a drug and a drink” that, she says, “I can’t feel my body now.”

Meanwhile, coupling and cocaine (the latter referenced by the slang term “yayo”) join forces on “Woo,” as Rihanna repeatedly instructs a man, “Feel me up, feel me up.” And things get even more depressing when she tells him, “I don’t even really love you/I don’t even really care about you,” yet still commands him to “Send for me, send for me, send for me.” There’s more of the same on “Needed Me,” where RiRi obscenely and explicitly brushes off a clingy guy by demeaning his prowess in bed. She completes the brutal kiss-off by saying, “Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?/F— your white horse and a carriage.”

Rough sex fills “Yeah, I Said It,” in which Rihanna says it’s fine for her partner to film their casual hookup. “Love on the Brain” mingles nihilism, lust and at least the metaphorical presence of physical abuse (“Can we burn something, babe?/And I run for miles just to get a taste/Must be love on the brain/That’s got me feeling this way/It beats me black and blue but it f—s me so good”). More obscenities follow.

“Desperado” finds Rihanna staying in a worthless, codependent relationship because “I don’t wanna be alone.” Deluxe Edition bonus tracks “Pose” and “Sex With Me” are filled with some of the album’s harshest language and most graphic sexual verbiage describing both male and female anatomy. Nine of 13 songs on the standard album also contain the likes of the f-word, s-word, “b–ch” and the n-word.

Summary Advisory

If Rihanna has at times in the past sounded like she was full of brazen fire, Anti finds her sounding brazenly empty. Because beneath her proud, rebellious demeanor—“a bad b–ch” she repeatedly labels herself—there are hints and glimpses at a profound internal void. She’s not ready to call it a God-shaped hole. But I will. Rihanna may be living life completely on her own terms, but right alongside the carnal bravado and obscene sex-ups, it’s pretty clear she’s hardly happy.

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Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.