By Priyanka Joseph
LET ME COVER YOUR SHIT IN GLITTER I CAN MAKE IT GOLD
If you are the kind who builds a weekly/monthly soundtrack to your life, then ANTI belongs on it for both Spring 2016 and the ongoing apocalypse. Every song is in first person, and their tones and lyrical content convey morally ambiguous, complex narratives of resistance and desire. Rihanna is unflinchingly, unapologetically in control of these narratives, and this fact, combined with the fact that the songs on this album shatter good girl/bad girl formulae make ANTI a very smart pop album, one that is, despite and perhaps because Rihanna is so mainsteam as a performing artist, both personal and political.
When I look outside my window
I can’t get no piece of mind
When I look outside my window
I can’t get no peace of mind
The opener, Consideration, is Rihanna sweetly telling everyone to go fuck themselves, she has her own plans. It’s this tightly produced piece of reggae, with a great sub-chorus from SZA, whose down-up-down lilt over bass and drums kept me hitting repeat. The second verse to this song has an insidious, subdued clap beat—totally burrowed into my brain. Consideration is a very private power groove. This is for alone time in the balcony at someone else’s party. This song has no fucks to give about who said what about which album. This song is a dropped mic—it couldn’t be bothered with being a diss track. This song doesn’t care what I think of RiRi’s previous work. Rihanna doesn’t need us to tell her she’s all grown up now. She doesn’t need us at all.
I’m tired of being played like a violin
What do I gotta do to get in your motherfuckin’ heart?
I wish this album had come out when I was still a teenager in Chennai Madras. I listened to horrible stuff as a kid. All the wrong songs. Songs where the girl cooed—metaphorically—about having tender, spirit-lifting first-time sex, or about withholding sex till the penis-carrier in question had proved that he could hang with her crazy, wacky, sexy friends. I spent 1997 to 2000 avoiding Celine Dion and her songs of monogamous devotion. At a crucial age, there was too little No Doubt. There was far too much Savage Garden. And all this served to reinforce dangerously coy ideas I had about love and sex, stitched together from my own awkward imaginings, as well as culturally reinforced nonsense—such as the assumption that any kind of relationship must always mean heartache and compromise. And worse—in my Madras at that time, there were no songs by women, no female-centric pop culture to pull from about being sexually independent or ambitious. And this is all the long way to say, listening to ANTI made me want to go back in time and fix what 16-22 year old me called pop music.
Love isn’t wasn’t healthy in your my tweenties. I wasn’t the only one—there were hundreds and thousands of us being raised without sex education on the actual curriculum, in gender-segregated schools and colleges, conditioned to keep secret anything remotely sexual about ourselves. Key moment came in 2003, when a girl from some other college was slapped—now we’d say assaulted—outside Sathyam Cinemas. All day, us Second Years whispered about it in classrooms and hallways, till our Vice Principle glared at us and demanded WHEN THEY STEP OVER YOUR LINE, HOW OFTEN WILL YOU ERASE IT, STEP BACK AND RE-DRAW IT? TILL YOUR BACK IS AGAINST THE WALL?
None of us understood.
All I had to at my disposal to navigate my budding interest in sex were my blessed grandfather’s James Hadley Chase novels, very early internet, and bad, bad music TV. Everything would have failed the Bechdel Test. Far too much awful late 90s label-pop had turned me off what female artists I had access to—the Corrs? All Saints? The split-up Spice Girls? When I was 14, Britney drove me insane, because I couldn’t manage the thought that if I perhaps did not look like that I would then perhaps never have sex (a lie, I have since discovered).
How did those of us who wanted to have sex back then manage? Carefully. Clandestinely. Money and mobility made a big difference—being able to pay off police men, watchmen, drivers, and servants was an accepted practice, and a huge bonus. If you were middle class like me, that meant being as inventive as you could be. The goal was to always maintain a shining halo of decency. As long as no one pointed fingers, as long as the news didn’t make it to campus or an aunty, you were safe, your family was safe. How many of us built an elaborate system of missed calls on our little Nokia bricks, to coordinate meeting at Marina Beach, or for tiffin at some Bhavan? How many of us never held hands or kissed in public, believing it to be completely normal not to do so? Where could we touch and be touched — autos, hallways, bathrooms, terraces, doorways? Our houses if your parents and that nosy neighbor were away. A friend’s place if you had such a friend, and could make a strong enough chain of excuses to account for your absence from home or tuition or campus. Were we stressed back then?
Everyone pretended we were all sexless marionettes, walking around in gender-segregated campuses, and that it was normal. We went mad slowly, on the inside, as we began to believe our own lies. We didn’t love him/her—we were just hanging out with friends. It was always “just a thing,” because even calling someone boyfriend/girlfriend (yuck) meant they thought you wanted your parents to meet them or you wanted to meet their parents. We never called each other anything. When we kissed, one of us kept an eye out. When we took public transport with our lovers, we’d act like staid cousins, unless it was late at night and the Auto Anna was too tired to care. Love, or sex, or going to the movies, or just reading together didn’t call for honesty or integrity– it called for an iron-clad alibi.
How much time did we lose, posturing or lying to ourselves?
I CAME FLUTTERING IN FROM NEVERLAND
TIME CAN NEVER STOP ME, NO, NO, NO, NO
RiRi could’ve saved me from almost a decade of painful unlearning. She still might. Look, James Joint is a gorgeous little interlude. Loop that shit. Loop it. It’s a haiku-sized celebration of being both high and in love. It’s so important that the lyrics say it straight here: the pot reference is immediately stripped of posture, and is instead conveyed as a simple truth over a melody that is silk. RiRi embraces the everyday high, normalizing what people have tried to turn into a “thing” that edgy chicks do. See– Women (and some men, allegedly) of all ages love to get high and then maybe frisky, if we’re up to it. We never say this out loud though, because we are TIRED of then immediately being labeled as quirky girls who get high, broke girls who get high, teenagers who get high, statistics who get high. We are just women, and some of us smoke. Some of us feel that doing it with someone you can make out with after is even better.
‘CAUSE THE SCARS ON YOUR HEART ARE STILL MINE
Kiss it Better sounds like a Prince track. The way the song climbs and climbs at 00:45:
Man, fuck yo pride
Just take it on back, boy, take it on back, boy
Take it back all night
Just take it on back, take it on back
Mmm, do what cha gotta do, keep me up all night
Hurtin’ vibe, man, it hurts inside when I look you in yo eye
Ri delivers this lush mix of frustration and affection, and her voice will make your cold little heart prickle all over. If you’re my age (almost 31, fuckers) you may want to feel silly about thinking about feelings you haven’t considered since you were 24, but you don’t, because this song, like this album, is completely devoid of cynicism. It demands at least as much from you. The production on Kiss it Better is legit. Those are 80s Prince sounds with conviction. Ri has no room for rhetoric or gesturing. This entire song is a tender challenge—“what are you willing to do?” but with this 80’s deep eye stare—
In Work, the lover is challenged to step up to the plate, recognize what the other is putting into this thing they have, and what they must both do, these fallible people who know each other’s dirt, to earn back the right to touch each other the way they used to. It feels like the third part of a trilogy, with the first being Oh Na Na (What’s My Name), followed by Take Care.
Work has a practical, every day sensibility. It’s a conversation. Side note: all this nonsense about the patois Ri deploys being unintelligible– fuck that instinct towards standardization. When RiRi sings patois, it’s a disruption. Because it’s her own, and always has been, so she just hangs with it, and it’s such a great vibe. She’s Kalki, she’s on that pale white horse she sings about riding in on in Consideration.
STOP THINKING YOU’RE THE ONLY OPTION
ANTI is about claiming a space, not running towards finding a new one. Well-meaning folk might talk about the danger behind celebrating ANYTHING AT ALL about broken or abusive relationships, and they’d be right. But the incontrovertible, discomfiting fact is that human desire is aggressive. I’d like to posit that, thematically, that hunger drives the entire movement of this album, and can be most easily traced in five tracks, mid-album—Woo, Needed Me, Yeah, I Said It, and the Tame Impala cover, Same Ol’ Mistakes.
Woo is a three-chord goth melody that has Ri delivering her need in a tone that is all tender menace. The way she lets her voice get ragged on the delivery of “I don’t really mean to care about you no more” in the last chorus–she’s basically letting this guy know he’s barely relevant to her, but she’ll have him if he’s into it. This is not PG desire. This is unhealthy, selfish, void filling, and indisputably real. The persona Rihanna conjures is remorseless, unknowable, and aims to shatter all social constructs of what acceptable attitudes about romance look and sound like. In this way, these five tracks deconstruct the Bad Bitch.
You Was Just Another Nigga On The Hit List
Tryna Fix Your Inner Issues With A Bad Bitch
Didn’t They Tell You That I Was A Savage?
Fuck Ya White Horse And Ya Carriage
Caveat: There’s a little savior complex, a little Santa Maria in the final track on the version of ANTI that Rihanna first dropped on Tidal (i.e. what this review is based on). Close to You is not my favorite, though it is a lovely melody. The ballad is devoid of saccharine lyrics, but has a very earnest tone on the subject of still loving the absent or fallible lover. Take it or leave it.
FYI, Internet: I’m waiting for the fan cut of the track Desperado to clips of Selma Hayek and Antonio Banderas (from the movie Desperado) hurling themselves roof to roof, and unleashing lead, and having plenty of well-lit, tasteful sex.
I know you don’t think it’s right
I know that you think it’s fake
Maybe fake’s what I like
Point is I have the right
So yes, Rihanna drops some Lady Lazarus real talk on ANTI. And then, all of a sudden, she gets gentle. There’s the Dido-heavy Never Ending, and the incredibly beautiful Love on the Brain and Higher. The latter blew my mind, because the raw in her voice took me back to Janice Joplin. I’ve heard plenty of practiced honesty in pop lately—Adele, what’s up girl?!—but I wasn’t prepared for the places Higher goes to. In a piece by Julian Mitchell for Forbes, Bibi Bourelly, the writer of Higher, is quoted saying, “I understand the value of pain – pain made me everything I am – and if you approach art outside of anything but yourself, it loses authenticity.”
There’s something I’ve been trying to put my finger on since Adele’s single dropped– the way the lyrics of Hello feel so– conformist. WHICH ISN’T A BAD THING AT ALL. The song is basically a first person account of being upset that your ex-lover won’t let you apologize, explain, and then depart with dignity. Hello, unrealistic expectations! If 20-year-old me listened to Hello, all 20-year-old me would have gotten from it was reinforcement of outdated, dangerously romanticized notions of pining over exes, and maintaining unrequited love for a (hetero-as-fuck and smelling-of-dad-cologne) man despite him having long since moved on. I mean I had those notions, and since I kept quiet about them, no one challenged me. And since my Type A moronic self sounded like I thought I knew what I was doing, everyone, from parents to mentors, let me be.
This set me up for a laughable amount of what my people call love failure. The problem is that back then, only South Indians understood how other South Indians secretly managed their hormones. When I arrived in the US, I still found it impossible to explain why I couldn’t be honest about my needs, and in my silence I made myself vulnerable. Don’t make yourself vulnerable in a foreign country. It’s easy to lose five years in a relationship if you’ve gotten used to staying silent, in order to comply with some vague yet awful social conditioning.
It took me leaving my ex—in the teeth of friends and my parents, who suggested compromise—to finally understand that desire is not predicated on love, that desire comes and goes, and does not, should not be validated in any way, least of all by a relationship, unless the urge is spontaneous and the power equally distributed between all parties involved in that relationship. I will wholly admit to this next bit—I have had to fight to resist the urge to paint a picture that gains your sympathy or interest. I was an immature fool before, and a mature fool after. My greatest regret is not being as confident on the inside as I wanted to be on the outside. I did not have any closure rituals. People and your time with them will mark you, man, and there’s no candle or spell that can erase that. And you may hate them for it, but you cannot deny your world is forever changed because of them.
Speaking of closure rituals, the persona Adele adopts in Hello is grieving the fact that hers were thwarted. So when I patronize Adele, I only do it after comparing it with the raspy heart of Higher on ANTI:
You’re like my fire
Let’s stay up late and smoke a J
I wanna go back to the old way
But I’m drunk instead, with a full ash tray
With a little bit too much to say
Now, Negative Nellys (and Structuralists) will argue that the whole point of a pop song is to achieve the distraction, manipulation, and submission of the consumer. While this might be true of pop tracks manufactured by record companies, I’d like to think albums like ANTI do something special for us who know we are being manipulated, who know our place as consumers– we who navigate daily the thin line between being fully immersed in the horror of now, and buying into some manufactured distraction. Or to put it another way, per Jacques Attali (1977), the art of music is to sublimate or repress the universal fear of personal and collective disintegration. Rihanna, by vocalizing these (her?) desires and frustrations, makes her catharsis accessible to me, by not apologizing for her feelings or sweeping her dirt under the proverbial carpet.
I’m not saying listening to better American R&B and pop would have changed my life. But it would have been nice to be surrounded by narratives where impressionable, randy young idiots like myself could hear that it was okay to want. That desire was fantastic and amazing, not something that immediately made you a potential victim or worse, a slut. If you grew up like me, then this album will make you think with such tenderness about your 20-year-old self, and you will want to go back and embrace younger you, and kiss your own face, and smile, and say, Hold on. You are more than enough for yourself. It’ll be fine. Just hold on.
Priyanka graduated from the MFA Creative Writing program at American University in 2015, where she was managing editor of FOLIO. Her nonfiction has appeared online in Bluestem and Tehelka magazine.