In Shea Serrano’s book, “The Rap Year Book,” he applauds Rakim, the inventor of modern flow. “He was an orator, and he was so utterly skilled that he was able to rap in this supreme way without spreading his personality all over the track, which is what people who weren’t even talented enough to do what he was doing were unable to avoid when they came along later.” (Here he notes: Jay Z, Nas, Biggie, Wu-Tang, so on.) This is huge – an incredible observation by Serrano. What he’s saying is, one of the guys who started this whole thing did it in a way completely different than we have ever seen before or after. I mean, look at some of the names he lists that couldn’t do it like Rakim: Jay, Nas and Biggie. Those guys are the ones who created the Hip Hop star persona. But Shea is more accurate in this observation than he knows. Not only was Rakim legendary for doing what he did, but what made those other guys such super stars was the fact that they did, indeed, “spill their personalities all over the track.”
Flash forward to music as we know it today, and the biggest stars are the ones who “spill their personalities all over the track.” What I mean by this phrase is that when we hear the voices of these larger-than-life artists on a song, the entire way we listen changes. Usually, when we experience art, we are taking what the artist does, says or has created, and applying it to our own lives. We try to feel what was felt when the art was created, and if we are able to do so, it makes the art striking and worthwhile. The humanity in the shared experience of connecting with a piece of art is an incredibly beautiful thing, and it is why art is such a huge part of our lives as humans.
But sometimes, art is delivered by a superstar. And this is what causes the change in the way we experience it. See, we tend to know a lot about these superstars’ lives. And, more than that, they offer us their souls through their work. But most of the time, these superstars are so far away from us in every aspect of life that there is no way we could hope to connect. So why do we listen? Because they are interesting enough to make us want to listen.
Look at the two biggest superstars in music right now: (1.) Kanye, (2.) Drake. I mean, do any of us expect to ever pay a cousin $250,000 to get back a laptop they stole because we were doing explicit acts to women on it? Do any of us ever expect to be able to send a text that says, “Stay the night, valet your car, come f**k me now?” I mean, that would be hella awesome. And I definitely aspire to that, as we all should. But even if I did get to that point, and even if Drake hadn’t said that in a song, it would still be a really Drake thing to say. What I mean is, their styles are ridiculously prominent. Their personalities are all over everything they do.
And that is what makes “ANTI” so special. In between her last album, released in 2012, and now, Rihanna has created a persona that has propelled her into this rung of superstars. I mean, when I hear, “This whiskey got me feelin’ pretty,” I know what she’s talking about. But my first impression upon hearing that line wasn’t, “Rihanna gets me.” It was, “I wonder if Rihanna is thinking about Leo in this song?” When I heard “Desperado,” my first impression was, “Rihanna must be listening to a good bit of Young Thug (he is the future).” And after that it was something like, “Damn, Rihanna has an incredible presence in this song. Tarantino needs to cast her in a muthaf*gg*n western (*Samuel L. voice*).”
Side note: I once knew a guy from Barbados (Rihanna’s homeland.) His dreadlocks were awesome. He drove a blacked out luxury sports car – which was also awesome. I went on a night out with him and some of his posse once and it was ridiculous. I bought us all a round of drinks and he looked at me with such respect. That was awesome, too. Then, when the club was getting really slow, he moved over to the window to watch the line of people waiting to get in. After conversing with one of his posse for a couple minutes, he let us know that it was time to leave. He proceeded to go up to one of the guys standing in line, convince him that the club was dead, and told him to follow us to his car. When we got to his car, he told me to be on the lookout and carried out a transaction out of his trunk. That guy definitely paid a lot of money for what he bought. From there, we left and he took me to this empty house in the middle of town. I’m still not sure if he owned the place. He said, “Wanna see something cool?” Then he took me to a closet where he pulled out some boards from the ceiling and produced an assault rifle with a bayonet. A freaking bayonet. After that, him and his friend rolled up and offered me some. I was honestly kind of terrified at that point so I declined, saying I had a drug test for a job coming up soon. He was super cool about it. (P.S. Police, if you are reading, none of that is true.)
When I listen to “Desperado” I think about this story. It was the most gangsta’ night of my life. But I still get the feel that Rihanna has been there, done that a million nights before and a million times more gangsta’. Have you seen this video?
And that just emphasizes her presence on the album. She can make me think back on one of the most memorable nights in my life, and then make me think it’s nothing compared to what she’s done (in a good way?). Even with the group of love songs at the end of the album, her presence is unreal. I never immediately thought of how relatable they are, which is the kind of feeling love songs usually render, but rather of how she doesn’t sing on them, she bleeds on them. “I bet she could never make you cry, ’cause the scars on your heart are still mine.” Is there a more Rihanna thing to say?
And even beyond her superstar solidifying presence, this is also a ridiculously exciting album. “Consideration” is the kind of opening song that when the album ends, and loops back to the beginning, it has such a captivating sound that you have no choice but to start the album again. Drake is on this album, too, and we barely even notice it. She has a song with Travis Scott on the hook, and all he says is “Woo, WooOoo” in falsetto … and it is captivating. Rihanna did a Tame Impala cover (a song off of my #2 album from last year, by the way), and it is one of my favorites. She even did a doo-wop reminiscent song with “Love on the Brain” and the sound has never sounded like that.
A lot of articles I’ve read about the album say that it’s an all-out affront to pop music. And that would make sense, I mean the title is “ANTI.” But that’s not even what’s important about it. When you listen to this album, you don’t think, “Man, this song is going to kill the radio.” You think, “I’m close to Rihanna,” and that’s what makes ANTI so special.