Say what you will about Rihanna, but she’s a fighter. It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off a stunt on the scale of “Bitch Better Have My Money”; a tribute to her own lazy power which, in the hands of anyone else, would have fallen far short of the provocative bloody mess that it became. After 2012’s deeply average Unapologetic, and the curiously bland, though undoubtedly successful, FourFiveSeconds, Rihanna’s career threatened to go the way of the many other pop singers, mainly female, as LA specialises in continuing to flog them into mediocrity. At least it could be said, through all of the hubbub, and despite all of the issues it posed, “My Money” had succeeded in giving Rihanna back her own voice.
That’s not to say that Rihanna ever really aimed for ultimate musical authenticity; most of ANTI, with its multitude of A-Grade producers and writers (most notably Drake, Timbaland, and Boi-1da) is still as much of a product of the music industry machine as any of her earlier albums, even if it is being released on a different label. But from the moment you hear her voice for the first time, she seems in control. She starts off slow, as the surprisingly mellow opener “Consideration”, which sees her trade in staccato barbs with fellow songstress SZA, before she breaks out into the eventual refrain of “Got to do things my own way”. It’s as much a musical message as a romantic one, with the overly accentuated bass and dancehall synths echoing languidly across the album, which draws a line under the excesses of Rihanna’s former attempts at EDM.
In its louder moments, on tracks like “Woo”, ANTI even strays into The Weeknd territory, whilst the all tortured guitars and vocoders, provide a contrast to the more minimalist, “Work” featuring Drake. In fact, the lyrical content alone could even give Abel Tesfaye a run for his money. Sex and drugs are the only real constants in this world; when Rihanna says “You light my fire” she’s talking about the J**** in her hand. Underneath these distinctly A-List musings, the narrative itself is a familiar one. Rihanna, recovering from a past relationship, vacillates between wondering how far he’d go to get her back on “Kiss It Better”, to straight out taunting him on “Woo”, and giving up on relationships in “Needed Me”, before finally admitting in the acoustic “Never Ending” that, under it all, she’s just cut, and wishes she could find love again.
The climax itself comes in the all too brief moments of “Higher”, where Rihanna finally lets her voice go, as the rasping edges lending authenticity to her retelling of a drunken encounter with her newfound lover. It seems too good to be true, and it is. Only moments before this she admits to still craving the dominant presence of her abusive former partner. Whilst Rihanna may have physically moved on, there’s an uneasy feeling that Chris Brown’s sordid hands have made their own mark forever. After all, violence scars, and judging from ANTI, those scars run deep.