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Sunday, February 05, 2023

Critic responses to Rihanna place new restrictions on pop artistry

Anti is Rihanna’s eighth studio album, but the way critics were talking about it, you’d think it was her first. Rolling Stone proudly stated in their raving review that Rihanna “has become an album artist,” while blogs like Huffington Post and Entertainment Weekly praised her for the noncommercial atmosphere of Anti, making sweeping claims that Rihanna is leading us into the future of listening to albums for the full experience, not just the singles.

This media parade for Rihanna’s metamorphosis into a “real artist” feels borderline condescending. Take a look at the comments sections on any of these reviews, and you’ll find converted music aficionados that hated Rihanna before but now respect her artistry. For some, it was the inclusion of the Tame Impala cover that changed their mind. For others it was the dreary piano songs like “Close To You” which showcased the refined maturation that all pop stars must achieve on their route to becoming an album artist.

The need for professional and amateur critics alike to label her benign ballads as a rebellious statement to the music industry is a disservice to the true moments of rebellion within Rihanna’s career. While critics were slinging C-pluses and two-and-a-half-stars at Unapologetic, Rihanna was busting sales charts, with songs like "Diamonds" tearing up clubs and house parties. Nobody wanted an “album artist” Rihanna because they were perfectly happy with the Rihanna that captivated so many through #1 singles.

But when critics start to say you’ve done something right, it inevitably leads to unspoken-for parties being tremendously disappointed. The voices absent from reviews of Anti are the wails of what could’ve been, which have been echoing across less professional platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The woes being express reflect the meagerness of Anti and its willingness to bend to the whim of critics as opposed to the faithful listeners who Rihanna has empowered for years.

Those voices can now only dream of a Rihanna album filled with rugged, powerful anthems like “B*itch Better Have My Money,” which seized the summer of 2015 with a bloody grip. Not one soul could deny that, in the exact moment they were listening to that track, nobody but Rihanna called the shot-shot-shots. Not a single critic wasted their time dissecting the nonexistent intellectual merits of the track because they were all probably too busy beating up and shaking down their friends for the fifteen dollars they’ve owed them since last year.

The track spurred a treasure trove of rugged club edits and remixes online, solidifying its place as not only a banging single, but a fountain for inspiration from which others could derive meaning. Club DJ and producer Total Freedom took the songs to frightening new heights, mixing Rihanna’s lyrics with an industrial trap song by Istanbul producer Sami Baha, while countless other producers managed to rework the track to fit every genre and background under the sun.

BBHMM shook the norms of pop music and got even the most unacquainted listeners of Rihanna excited for the future. But what followed was a humdrum album filled with Adele-esque ballads that sounded more fitting at a domestic dinner party than a youth rebellion. “Work,” the one single to actually make it on the album, makes Rihanna and Drake sound like overworked parents that sauntered into the studio directly after leaving their day jobs at investment firms.

Total Freedom went on Twitter after Anti dropped, expressing profound disappointment at the album’s total lack of power and style. “Sick that she rejected all those songs though - I just don’t know why I didn’t get called instead,” he lamented, as if mourning the death of a future in which Rihanna embraced post-apocalyptic shattering club tracks instead of a Tame Impala instrumental. It’s anybody’s guess as to how critics would have reacted to a Total Freedom-produced Anti, though it certainly would have shaken more ground than what we were met with instead.

The whole ordeal is reminiscent of the direction Weezer went in after having Pinkerton torn to shreds by music critics back in the 90’s. While the unapologetically emotional and borderline disturbing album is widely considered their masterpiece work, the disapproval of the mainstream caused Rivers Cuomo to rethink his vision and put out the “green album,” which contained Saturday backyard barbecue jams like “Island in The Sun” that scorned the punks and teens allured by the guttural screams of Pinkerton.  

While the stylistic distance between Cuomo and Rihanna is several miles wide, it seems like both have faced the same tired problems that every artist finds themselves dealing with in their careers: when critics create the narrative of how you should act, do you risk a potentially career-ruining move towards true individual expression or do you benignly walk forward on the path that’s already been neatly laid out by others?

Choosing the former option is walking a dangerously thin tightrope. Exploring a frontier beyond convention requires knowing producers as much as knowing one's self. At best, all the pieces have to align perfectly for an audience to be simultaneously challenged and pleased. At worst, you end up with a tremendously horrid regurgitation of self expression, as was the case with Kid Cudi’s Speedin' Bullet 2 Heaven.

Rihanna played it safe with Anti, and there’s nothing wrong with that on its own. But when critics present her as “rewriting the rules of pop,” as one Guardian article put it, it sets a precedent that the path into the heart of a critic is to fill one’s album with easily-digestible bits of conventional songwriting ripe for over-dissection, a lesson that future artists will internalize on their own paths towards success.

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When people praise Anti for being a step towards unconventional pop, it seems like they’re really trying to say that the album better fits their own personal requirements of what art should be. The Rolling Stone review wraps up by asking readers “to question the boxes [they’ve] placed Rihanna in all along.” The irony in this observation is that, while listeners are simultaneously congratulating Rihanna for breaking out of the box, they’ve in turn placed her in the bigger box that comes with being an “album artist.” By every measure, the media reception of Anti signals the welcoming of Rihanna into a cozy home into post-popstar suburbia. Whether she chooses to settle down there will shift her public perception for years to come.

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