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Pop & Hiss
Review

With 'Anti,' Rihanna shows the strength in vulnerability

You can’t name your album “Anti” without inviting your audience to think about what you oppose. So what is Rihanna standing against on her eighth studio record?

A smoothly choreographed product rollout, for one.

After repeated delays, “Anti” finally appeared online Wednesday night, first in an apparently unauthorized leak, then as an exclusive on the streaming service Tidal; Samsung also gave away a limited number of free downloads through a complicated promotion. By Friday, the album was available for sale through iTunes (where it quickly topped the chart) and Tidal, though it hasn’t yet shown up on other streaming services such as Spotify, and a physical release date has yet to be announced.

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What’s more, none of the singles Rihanna released last year during the long run-up to “Anti” -- “FourFiveSeconds” (featuring Kanye West and Paul McCartney), “American Oxygen” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” -- made it onto the album, which suggests a level of indecision on her part.

But perhaps this bumpy path to market wasn’t an accident or a sign of failure so much as an indication of Rihanna’s new approach. For much of the last decade, the singer has been a bright spot in a struggling record industry, consistently doling out hit songs one after the other. (If greatest-hits CDs were still a thing, she’d probably have two by now.)

Yet somewhere in the wake of her last album, 2012’s “Unapologetic,” Rihanna seemed to lose interest in her role as radio’s most reliable rainmaker; her focus shifted elsewhere, to movies, fashion and especially Instagram, even as her pop stardom grew.

Seen in that context, “Anti’s” chaotic delivery resembles a rejection of the type of careful strategizing that drives many high-level pop careers in 2016. It also looks like an exercise of accumulated power.

Certainly, Rihanna is taking advantage of her position on this album, her most adventurous by far. Throughout “Anti” Rihanna turns away from the bright, propulsive sound of her best-known songs -- “Umbrella,” “We Found Love,” “Diamonds” -- and toward production that’s looser and more unpredictable.

“Consideration” is a scratchy hip-hop number featuring the underground R&B singer SZA of Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg crew. “James Joint” has Rihanna describing her love of weed over shimmering, Stevie Wonder-style electric piano. “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is a trippy remake of a tune by the Australian psych-rock band Tame Impala.

“Woo” rides a dark, needling groove produced in part by the rapper Travis Scott, whom Rihanna is reportedly dating. In each of these tracks you can hear the singer’s clear pleasure in exploring styles not necessarily keyed to chart domination.

“I got to do things my own way,” she sings in “Consideration,” and no one could doubt her determination.

Yet Rihanna isn’t merely flexing her hard-won control here. She’s also pushing back against her established image, which over the last few years has toughened, thrillingly, into a kind of icon of imperturbability.

“Anti” is remarkably tender at points, as in “Kiss It Better,” a woozy synth-rock jam about a lover seeking reconciliation, and “Never Ending,” which sets a similar idea over an acoustic arrangement that borrows from Dido’s “Thank You,” of all things.

In “Work,” a lithe, dancehall-inspired duet with Drake, Rihanna’s vocal melts into love-drunk babbling; the song shares a cool sensuality with “Hotline Bling,” which contrasts with Drake’s aggressive recent work in the same way that “Anti” does Rihanna’s.

The album ends with two more moments of radical vulnerability: “Higher,” a bleary retro-soul song in which she’s mulling her regrets at the end of a very long night, and “Close to You,” a sparse piano ballad that shows off her most unguarded singing.

Sometimes the top is the only place safe enough to look weak.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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