Arts & CultureMusicScene Guide

Rihanna’s ‘Anti’ polarizes: how did pop music get this weird?

Rihanna’s new record Anti is already the year’s most polarizing pop album. The name says it all – it’s an experimental and anti-commercial work, featuring a glut of unfinished half-songs, a seven-minute Tame Impala cover and exactly none of the singles she’s released since her last album, 2012’s Apologetic. Commercially, it’s a move that makes zero sense. Rihanna dominated the zeitgeist between 2007 and 2012, then disappeared for nearly as long. Why would she come back with this?

The answer may lie in a rising trend towards more avant-garde pop records. It’s unclear why exactly pop stars are indulging so much. Perhaps it’s because pop is more accepted as an art form than ever thanks to the massive critical success of albums like Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Beyoncé’s self-titled. Perhaps it’s because the surprise-release format means artists are less concerned about disappointing fans. Either way, it’s clear our beloved denizens of the Top 40 are less afraid than ever to get their hands dirty.

Here’s a brief run-through of the records that have contributed to this bizarre landscape.

Beyoncé – Beyoncé (2013)
Beyoncé’s sonically audacious fourth album sold bucketloads, upended the pop industry’s entire marketing strategy, and shot an already-dominant pop star to stratospheric levels of cultural ubiquity. It’s hard to imagine the critical adoration of 1989 without this record to prove to naysayers that capital-P pop could also be capital-A art.

Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (2015)
Drake/Future – What A Time To Be Alive (2015)

Drake’s invention of the “retail mixtape” was a stroke of marketing genius, allowing him to make money off low-stakes, relatively pop-unfriendly pet projects while keeping fans hyped for his “real” albums. Erykah Badu and Young Thug have already released some of their most alienating work as retail mixtapes, and this trend could likely expand in the future.

Miley Cyrus – Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz (2015)

This is where things started to get really wacky. Released for free at the 2015 VMAs, this sprawling Cyrus-Flaming Lips collab was so bizarre barely anyone listened to it (though more should – it’s surprisingly great). The Lips also collaborated with Ke$ha on an ear-splitting Stooges cover in 2012, suggesting Ke$ha might make some pretty batshit music once she gets out of the awful situation she’s stuck in right now.

Willow – Ardipithecus (2015)

If you’ve followed the Smith siblings at all over the last few years, it should be no surprise at all that Will and Jada Pinkett progeny/”Whip My Hair” singer Willow’s debut consists largely of avant-garde New Age experiments. Still, the fact that Jay Z’s massive Roc Nation imprint released this thing proves there’s hope for experimental pop to thrive on major labels.


Rihanna – Anti (2016)

Anti is of a similar class to Dead Petz and Ardipithecus, albeit a bit tamer: the difference (aside from the lack of New Age crap) is the stakes. It’s a commercial album by a pop star who’s been AWOL for four years, meaning people will be talking about it. If it sells dismally, this new class of pop album might be confined to free releases. If it’s a success, pop’s about to get a whole lot thornier.

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Daniel Bromfield

Daniel Bromfield

Daniel Bromfield is a writer for the Arts & Culture desk of the Emerald, specializing in music. He maintained the SF Rebirth blog in San Francisco from 2010-2013, and his work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, KWVA, and the Oregon Voice.