We need to talk about her vocals.

By Madison Vain
Updated January 28, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

After months — nay, years! — of anticipation, Rihanna dropped her eighth full-length album Anti late Wednesday evening. The 13-track set is streaming exclusively on Tidal (fans can download it for free from the site using the “Anti” code). It’s a collection unlike any other from the Barbadian star. Enormous, glossy production has been swapped in favor of sparse arrangements; thrilling falsetto runs guide delicate, subdued delivery. ANTI has heaps of memorable moments—here are some of the best on first listen.

1. Minimal production

As the title suggests, ANTI is not your typical Rihanna album. There are no bangers courtesy of pop super producer Dr. Luke or Norwegian production duo Stargate, who had hands in four of the Barbadian star’s No. 1 songs, “Rude Boy”, “Only Girl (In The World)”, “What’s My Name?” and “S&M.” Instead, she favors minimalist, shadowy R&B styles throughout — especially in the album’s second half, where songs are stripped all the way back to just her vocals and atmospherics. This means tracks occasionally feel so loose they’re on the brink of dissolving entirely (“Desperado,” “Never Ending”), but there’s a compelling realness to that listening experience coming from one of the world’s biggest pop stars.

2. Token toking up

Lest you forget what the star likes to do in her downtime, peep all those references to smoking weed. “James Joint” is an interlude that doubles as a stoner anthem and runs just over one minute long. Last April, she said she was sharing the track in honor of April 20 (4/20), but in a stoner power play, Rihanna actually released it a day late. The album’s second interlude, “Higher,” which runs about a half minute longer, is also about wanting to make things right with a lover with whom she’s on the outs. Come over, babe, she begs, let’s “stay up late and smoke a J.”

3. Rihanna, the rock star

“FourFiveSeconds,” the singer’s collab with Kanye West and Sir Paul McCartney, is perhaps her most memorable guitar tune, but despite being released last year, it’s notably absent on ANTI. Enter “Kiss It Better,” a bleeding heart rock ballad on which Rihanna asks a lover to take her back. Nuno Bettencourt, formerly of Extreme, provides that killer opening riff, and Rihanna sashays through the chorus in such a way it begs for live performance. “What are you willing to do?” the song asks. Well, for one, throw this on repeat.

4. “Nobody touch me in the righteous/Nobody text me in a crisis”

“Work” is not a perfect Rihanna song. But nestled in her Drake-collaboration, is this perfect Rihanna lyric.

5. Sex goddess politics

Rihanna began her career as a pop princess, but ask RiRi now and she’ll tell you she’s a “savage.” On the DJ Mustard-produced “Needed Me,” she shirks horses and white carriages and other traditionally romantic memorabilia. “You were good on the low for a faded f—,” she sings. “Don’t get it twisted.” Anytime a woman speaks out about owning her bedroom power dynamics, it feels political and vital. That’s especially true here.

6. That dip in the psych-rock pool

“New Person, Same Old Mistakes” is a six-minute, soothing cloud of melodies buried deep on psych-rock outfit Tame Impala’s latest release, Currents. There’s a wonderful, half-remembered quality to it that feels like something only frontman Kevin Parker could have made. Perhaps that blurry quality is what attracted Rihanna to the tune. Either way, she covers it, keeping its gorgeous arrangements — that’s Parker you here on supporting vocals — but she adds a sex appeal you never knew you wanted the song to have.

7. Throwback soul

“James Joint” has a Stevie Wonder echo, and it’s not the only time Rihanna reaches back in time. On “Love On The Brain,” she heads for old-school soul. It works with her new, raw vocal tone and is complimented indelibly with a shrieking bluesy guitar backing.

8. Rihanna’s voice

Rihanna sings differently on ANTI. Alternatively, Rihanna sings exactly how she has always sung, but the lack of production allows listeners to hear what a delightful edge her vocals have. If we heard Erykah Badu ghost-sang “Love On The Brain,” we may be convinced. On “Higher,” she sounds like her throat might rip in two, which pairs well with the song’s subject matter — as she pleads with an ex to just come over and let her try to make it right. The effect allows nuance. While there’s nothing wrong with an overwrought power-pop ballad, there’s a different sadness afforded by to the dejected vocal shrugs of songs like “Close To You.”