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Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

February 28, 2016

TEST SPIN: Rihanna — ANTI

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A new Rihanna emerges with ANTI. A black ­and ­white childhood image of the singer makes its appearance on the album cover, both striking and mysterious. This is not the first time we have seen a hip hop artist use a childhood portrait for their album art: Nas’ Illmatic and Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die are iconic album covers that also engage with the symbolism of a young child. However, ANTI’s album art distinguishes itself from what any other artist has done in the past. In collaboration with Israeli artist Roy Nachum and poet Chloe Mitchell, Rihanna co-wrote a poem called “If They Let Us” and translated it into Braille. The braille poem can be found scattered on a red ­and ­white background surrounding the image of a young Rihanna blinded by a gold crown forming a shield over her eyes. The youth symbolizes the new beginnings Rihanna hopes to achieve through her work on ANTI, while the impaired vision reveals the singer’s desire to distance herself from the illusions of the pitiful appearances cultivated by the music industry. Rihanna commented on the intents of her album cover, explaining that “sometimes those with sight are the blindest.”

ANTI showcases Rihanna’s diverse talents as an artist who effectively engages with a variety of genres while always maintaining her authenticity. We have already seen Rihanna own reggae with “Man Down” and dominate electronic dance music with “Where Have You Been.” ANTI’s 11th track, “Love on the Brain,” shows Rihanna taking on an Amy Winehouse-­inspired style, with doo-wop melodies and a dynamic vocal range. But it is ultimately “Work” that has seen the most success on her more reclusive, personal album. Most students at Cornell can certainly empathize with the lyrics — “Work work work work work work work” — in Rihanna’s latest hit. With its sultry dancehall beats, “Work” could be appropriately played at a Friday night party or as a motivation song while studying in Olin’s stacks. Despite being the most popular track on the album, “Work” has not achieved the familiar iconic status that usually accompanies Rihanna’s hit singles. “Diamonds,” “Only Girl (In the World)” and “We Found Love” have achieved a timeless status within Rihanna’s music career, but the discordant sounds created by the slurred and mumbled lyrics of “Work”’s chorus certainly do not have us shining bright like a diamond. Instead, the almost incomprehensible repetition of “work” creates a strange dichotomy that leaves us feeling both exhausted and enthralled.

With “Needed Me,” Rihanna reminds us of her authentic bad­girl persona that has been at the core of her artistic expression throughout the years. She makes it known that she was never fooled by the typical “white horse and carriage,” prince charming appearances. Rihanna holds nothing back here, juxtaposing her dominance and independence and the fickle nature of the men who have needed her and depended upon her. The song certainly empowers women to embrace their importance and self-­worth, with many Twitter users proclaiming the song to be their “female savage anthem.”

While the album is certainly not a huge success on Billboard, I don’t think Rihanna ever intended it to be. Rihanna is no stranger to what sells in the music business, and many were surprised when her recent hit single, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” was left off the tracklist for the new album. ANTI is largely a personal endeavor for Rihanna. She has embarked on a journey towards independent self-­revelations unmediated by the noise of fame and glamour.

“My voice is my suit and armor / My shield, and all that I am.” This line from the Braille poem displayed on Rihanna’s album art reflects the ANTI in her. While the glorification of nothingness in the music industry rewards artists who aimlessly follow the mainstream current, Rihanna instead chooses to push back. She is an ANTI, making her power known by leaving behind what we have wrongfully glorified.

Annabel Campo is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at acampo@cornellsun.com.