The 2000s laid the technical foundations for a new musical moment in human history. The 2010s opened with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West, hosting rising stars Nicki Minaj and Rihanna as well as old greats like Jay-Z and indie act Bon Iver. This marked an artistic culmination of modern music akin to Mozart’s Requiem in classical music in the eighteenth century. The 2010s culminated with Billie Eilish’s indie pop artistry. But this was made possible by a new electropop production style innovated by pop producers Jack Antonoff for Lorde’s Melodrama (2017) and Finneas O’Connell for Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go (2019). These albums followed a moment which bridged between hip hop and pop: Rihanna’s R&B solo endeavour on Anti (2016), with some of the most compelling vocal flows and throbbing, rhythmical basslines of this century. Let me explain.
I have previously commented on Rihanna’s remarkable abilities as a singer. But on Anti her artistry is revealed on her collaboration with producers of a variety of stripes. The result is dazzlingly brilliant. Longtime Kanye collaborator Jeff Bhasker contributes to the composition and production of the assured ‘Kiss It Better’. The straightforwardly phenomenal bassline of ‘Work’ ft. Drake has the production feature of the Eminem/Kanye/Kendrick collaborator Boi1da, as well as Jamie Foxx/Beyoncé collaborator 40. DJ Mustard aids the stellar production of ‘Needed Me’, while Timbaland (who needs no introduction) aids ‘Yeah, I Said It’. Kuk Harrell acts as vocal producer for the album, keeping Rihanna’s at once disciplined and expressive vocals in sonic harmony with the elaborate substructure the rhythmically-focused producers develop, with plenty of musical contrast and soul-infused melodic depth.
Anti has a depth on technical and artistic levels that contrasts with the merely surface level focus of much of contemporary music. The appearance of depth is hard to tie to the reality thereof. Rihanna does not make strident political commentary on this album, but there is something undeniably political about the spirit of resistance encoded into the substance and structure of this record. The positivity is known through its negativity: emptiness gives rise to forms of things unknown on Anti, as Rihanna and SZA declare on the album track — ‘Why can’t you just let me grow?’
Perhaps the 2020s will break free from the dynamic cycles of technologically-driven music this century. To do so we must take heed from one of the most compelling attempts to break free by going deeper into the inferno. Anti is technical artistry at its finest — if not the same musical masterpiece that is Dark Twisted Fantasy. Perhaps it isn’t a million miles away. The new musical moment is nearly upon us. It is easy to look back decades in moments of nostalgia. But to realise the future in the present, we may sometimes do well to look to the recent past of popular music. For it was not all that long ago, and its influence remains, whether we accept it or not. The influence of Anti and its artistic leader, Rihanna, remain undeniable. In today’s confused musical world, I think that is for the best. To make anything good, it never harms to learn from the best. The rest, as they say, is history.