Christopher Polk/Getty Images
January 29, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
We gave it an A-

“I’ve got to do things my own way, darling,” 27-year-old Barbadian pop goddess Rihanna teases on “Consideration,” the woozy opener on her long-awaited eighth studio album Anti. Omitting two already-hit singles, one featuring a former Beatle, certainly qualifies. So does releasing an album without the soaring, Grey-Goose-and-glowstick anthems that constitute her career’s foundation. But everybody else’s ways be damned: Anti proves Rihanna should play by her own rules more often.

She’s shape-shifted before (see 2009’s dark, risqué Rated R). But the consistency that characterized Rihanna’s biggest singles of the last decade — quick, try to recall which of her rapid-fire releases “Only Girl In The World,” “Diamonds,” or “We Found Love” appears on — has been abandoned here. Anti’s only true carryover is her voice, which sounds stronger than ever. Sure, Rihanna may have convened the Avengers of Top 40 pop (Drake, Timbaland, and a slew of other hitmakers receive credits), but they’re all cogs in the machinery of her broader vision.

That helps make Anti Rihanna’s most intriguing project yet, even if there’s no clear smash among its 13 tracks. Her approach echoes the album-oriented mentality of peers like Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Beyoncé (Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You” co-writer Shea Taylor helped pen Anti’s hazy stoner homage “James Joint,” and “Kiss It Better” sounds like a lost demo from Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, thanks to an assist from his frequent collaborator Jeff Bhasker). It’s also her second-shortest album, and in many ways her most deliberately uncommercial. But don’t let the low-key THC vibes fool you: Every harmony, drumbeat, and transition on Anti is painstakingly finessed. And on the closing sequence of ballads—particularly the hypnotic “Love on the Brain”—she delivers some of her finest vocal moments yet.

Rihanna has also lived three more years of life since 2012’s Unapologetic, and it shows in her lyrics. She pays tribute to coke-fueled trysts on grimy “Woo” and boosts her self-confidence with liquid courage on the soulful, crackling “Higher.” Even her jabs are sharper: “Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?” she asks an ex-lover on “Needed Me.” “F—k your white horse and a carriage.”

Anti’s fresh stylings coalesce, of all places, on her version of Tame Impala’s psych-synth epic “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” Only minimal sonic tweaks and a revised title (“Same Ol’ Mistakes”) differentiate it from the band’s 2015 original, but Rihanna makes the song triumphantly her own. And when she sings the lines “I can just hear them now/‘How could you let us down?’/But they don’t know what I found/Or see it from this way around,” it feels like pop’s most brazen artist declaring her independence.

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