March 2016

Arts & Letters

Songs for the 3 am

By Anwen Crawford

Rihanna. Image supplied by Universal Music.

Rihanna’s ‘ANTI’ and Future’s ‘EVOL’

The Barbadian pop singer Rihanna and the Canadian rapper Drake have recorded three duets together. Each has been memorable, distinctive: the two performers encourage in each other a lucidity of feeling that suits them both, and their songs have pressed upon a tender spot where lust, infatuation and regret overlap. Their first collaboration, ‘What’s My Name?’, appeared on Rihanna’s 2010 album Loud, while their second, ‘Take Care’, was the title track of Drake’s 2011 album. Their most recent, ‘Work’, released in late January, is also the lead single from Rihanna’s eighth album, ANTI, which is out now.

‘Work’ opens with a marvellously loose vocal hook, one that highlights Rihanna’s fluency in patois. “He said me haffi / work, work, work, work, work, work,” she sings (“haffi” translates as “have to”), though she hardly bothers to enunciate the consonants, so that “work” sounds more like “worrh”. ANTI is an album that often gives the impression of being unfinished – and just as often makes a virtue out of that tentative, experimental quality – but for the three and a half minutes of ‘Work’, Rihanna sounds sure of herself.

When Drake arrives it’s to play the character that Drake excels at playing: a wounded Lothario. “I spilled all my emotions tonight, I’m sorry,” he offers, in the half-sung, half-spoken style that, in addition to being his signature, has gradually, over the past half-dozen years, remade the sound of mainstream hip-hop: rap with a melody. “Me nuh cyar if him / hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurting,” counters Rihanna, though you get the sense that she does care, and rather a lot. This is an aspect of Rihanna that the world hasn’t often heard, or witnessed, before now.

It’s been more than three years since Rihanna’s last studio album, Unapologetic, which was released in late 2012. Then, there was a general sense that Rihanna had reached burnout (though I count myself among a minority of listeners who were taken by the album’s gothic atmosphere). In the time since Unapologetic she has been rejuvenated, and not only as a singer, for she now occupies the role of global It Girl for a quick-witted, pop-savvy online audience. She has an active presence on Twitter and Instagram, and is the subject of countless memes that circulate through social media. For young women, in particular, her give-no-fucks bravado has become both a symbol of and a shorthand for the stubbornness it takes to hold your ground in a frequently misogynistic online space. Why type out a forbearing reply for the enlightenment of an aggressor when you could, instead, post a photo of Rihanna carelessly flipping the bird? She’s on your side, until she isn’t – cue the firestorm that broke out last year over her single ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, which took the notion of vengeance about as far as a pop song can, and was accompanied by a video that concluded with a shot of her reclining naked, in a luggage trunk, slathered in bank notes and blood.

That song is not on ANTI, to the surprise of many – nor are her two other 2015 singles, ‘FourFiveSeconds’, a collaboration with Kanye West and Paul McCartney, and ‘American Oxygen’, which seemed a genuine, if too generic, attempt at social commentary. In retrospect, though, both ‘FourFiveSeconds’ and ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ were indicators of a new liberty, and a new conviction, in Rihanna’s vocal style.

ANTI finds Rihanna singing in ways she never has before, from the liquid burble of ‘Work’ to the soul revivalism of ‘Love on the Brain’ and ‘Higher’, where she lets her voice break and catch, inhabiting a tone of desperation that would have been entirely out of place on her earlier records. I have, in the past, considered Rihanna the very opposite of a soul singer, and all the more interesting for it; she could deliver a lyric with considerable skill and yet not seem to feel it much, which lent her performances a distant, android strangeness, enhanced by the varieties of digital voice processing that are everywhere in contemporary pop music. But ANTI turns out to be the most inward-facing album that Rihanna has yet made – as if, during the years when her semblances have multiplied across the internet, another Rihanna was out there in the world, gathering herself.

The best songs on ANTI give the sense that Rihanna is vocalising an interior monologue, while the weakest songs are in the mode of “old” Rihanna, acting as public declarations of desire. ‘Kiss It Better’, with its leering, treated guitar line, is in the latter category, and nearly derails the album’s momentum early on, while ‘Desperado’ revisits a frequent trope in Rihanna’s songs – lovers as outlaws – to little effect.

But the album’s centre, a song called ‘Needed Me’, is quite something. It is elegantly simple, with a beat more implied than stated – there is almost nothing to it but a deep, woozy bass synthesiser, played off against a sharp rimshot on the third count of each bar. (DJ Mustard’s minimalist production style on this song marks a turnabout for Rihanna, previously the reigning diva of four-on-the-floor anthems.) Rihanna plays disconsolate but guarded. “You was good on the low for a faded fuck / on some faded love,” she sings in the first verse, shrugging off a lover. By the chorus he proves far weaker than she is. “You / needed me,” she sings, stretching “needed” to six syllables along the length of a cascading melody line that lands her close to the bottom of her vocal range.

This is a new sound for Rihanna, though it recalls an older style. ANTI is an album full of obvious throwbacks – to soul, to dancehall (as on ‘Work’), even to psychedelia (‘Same Ol’ Mistakes’ is a cover of Australian band Tame Impala’s ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’, which appeared last year on their hugely successful third album, Currents). ‘Needed Me’ feels more voguish, but it is also a song that glances backward, to a sparsely percussive, mid-tempo R&B style of the late 1990s, best heard on songs like ‘Angel in Disguise’, by Brandy, or Whitney Houston’s ‘It’s Not Right But It’s Okay’.

Early reaction to ANTI lamented the lack of club “bangers” – songs to make a dance floor erupt. (ANTI is an anti-climax.) But these other songs, like ‘Needed Me’, can also be club songs, of a particular kind. They’re songs for the 3 am, when collective euphoria has dipped. ‘Needed Me’ is musically spacious in a way that seems to demand a physical correlative – there is room on the dance floor for solitariness, too. Or, as Rihanna puts it elsewhere, “Nuh body touch me you nuh righteous”, which is one way of saying Leave me alone.

‘Needed Me’ also sounds like a reply – and a definitive one – to a gloomy male narcissism that has found repeated purchase on the charts over the past few years. It’s a mood that reached twin peaks of (unintentional) self-parody last year on The Weeknd’s ‘The Hills’ and Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’. Both songs were hits, and both join seductive arrangements to horribly self-entitled narratives. “Ever since I left the city you / got a reputation for yourself now,” pouted Drake. “Everybody knows and I feel left out.” Poppet.

Drake, like Rihanna, is partly a creation of the internet. (Drake is a marquee star of the Apple Music streaming service, and Rihanna of a rival platform, Tidal.) Even as ‘Hotline Bling’ climbed the charts, the song – and its film clip, which showcased Drake’s gormless dancing – provoked a collective gale of laughter.

But the leading exponent of the lugubrious style is Future, an American rapper who has worked previously with both Drake and Rihanna. He is currently on a prolific streak, having released two mixtapes and one official studio album in 2015, along with What a Time To Be Alive, an album-length collaboration with Drake (which debuted via Apple Music). His most recent mixtape, Purple Reign, was released in January; his fourth studio album, EVOL, swiftly followed.

Future’s songs are a smorgasbord of spending, sex and drugs, but he never sounds as if he’s having fun. Nevertheless, his opiated style – slurred, Auto-Tuned voice laid over skeletal beat patterns and frosty synthesisers – is uniquely effective. To enter Future’s musical universe is to slide into a world the consistency and colour of his beloved codeine syrup: viscous and twilit purple. “I give prescriptions to you, no charge,” he raps on ‘No Charge’, one of the strongest tracks from Purple Reign. Few, if any, contemporary artists write so addictively about addiction as Future. He pulls you in.

Each of Future’s past half-dozen releases has been a minor variation on the same template, but EVOL is gripping where Purple Reign was merely serviceable. The album’s cover shows a blackened, smouldering bouquet of roses, and each song is devoted to a sordid, loveless mood: Future isn’t just Southern gothic (he’s from Atlanta, Georgia), he’s gothic like a 19th-century nightmare. “Turn a five-star hotel to a traphouse,” he raps on ‘Low Life’. “Flood my cross with ice / Getting money my religion.” That’s “ice” as in diamonds, though other allusions come to mind.

‘Low Life’ is a collaboration with (wouldn’t you know it) The Weeknd, and the two performers are well suited – it’s a far better match than Future’s work with Drake, which amounted to less than the sum of its parts. Like all of Future’s best songs, ‘Low Life’ is repellently nihilistic and mesmeric in equal portions; the casual misogyny is an excess, but the music is so perfectly spare and cold.

“I sit at the throne, I sit at the throne / You niggas ain’t nothin’ but some clones,” boasts Future on ‘Ain’t No Time’, EVOL’s opening track. The egocentrism is unpleasant, though it’s hardly exceptional, either in the rap world or outside of it. And it’s difficult to laugh at. If Drake is a court jester of self-absorption, then Future is the moody prince. (And, as per the punning title of Purple Reign, a moodier, nastier Prince.) It’s a high and lonely perch, and he sounds like he’s freefalling.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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