Rihanna has gone from Good Girl Gone Bad to bonafide style icon, pop culture heavyweight, and international superstar.
In the past few years, she’s successfully turned her name into that of an influential tastemaker, a woman often imitated but never duplicated, who does what she wants, when she wants, without fear or worry of judgment or disapproval.
The release of her eighth studio album, Anti, marks a decidedly different direction in the Rihanna sound. In an interview with Vogue, she admits, “It might not be some automatic record that will be Top 40. But I felt like I earned the right to do that now.” Anti, unlike previous albums, doesn’t settle for a theme-driven package of perfectly produced pop bangers and radio-friendly tunes. From the SZA-featured opening track, “Consideration,” to the Drake-aided, dancehall-infused “Work,” Riri’s Anti prefers the visceral power of atmosphere.
Despite the variations in style and production per song, the album’s overall intent is to conjure a certain mood. Whether she’s venting frustrations with overwhelming love affairs gone wrong or lust at first sight, the album wields Rihanna’s voice as both weapon and refuge. In a poem written by Chloe Mitchell exclusively commissioned for the album, Mitchell’s words provide an unapologetic mission statement:
I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood.
It is simply because what I want to say,
what I need to say, won’t be heard.
Heard in a way I so rightfully deserve.
What I choose to say is of so much substance
That people just won’t understand the depth of my message.
So my voice is not my weakness,
It is the opposite of what others are afraid of.
My voice is my suit and armor,
My shield, and all that I am.
Writing for Billboard, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd notes in her review of Anti that Rihanna “exists on the languorous edge of Carefree Black Girlness, all Instagrams from Saint Barts and red carpet stunting and relaxed dismissals of thirsty men pretending to know her.” Rihanna, both the brand and the public persona, does not thrive on attention, but rather the seductive thrill of self-fulfillment. Her image is not necessarily about accessibility or even likeability, but unabashed ownership of the self. She is not concerned with role-model status. On the contrary, obeying such strict demands would compromise her sense of authenticity. The Rihanna brand doesn’t just advocate independence, because independence without the foundation of self-fulfillment is a hollow achievement.
The concept of the Carefree Black Girl seems to have been born from social media and (Black) Tumblr culture. In an essay for Refinery29, Jamala Johns explains, “There are varying ways in which the title is bestowed, but a common tone connects everything. It’s the freedom and exuberance of simple moments and pleasures: clutching flowers, enjoying the company of your equally stylish friends, reveling in creative endeavors, and even finding the ethereal beauty in not-so-carefree moments.” She adds, “For women of color, such basic depictions continue to go underrepresented.”
The Carefree Black Girl attempts to soften and humanize the crushing, insular cage of the Angry Black Woman. The Carefree Black Girl is radical in the sense that she does not submit to the expectations dictated by the establishment of white supremacy. The Carefree Black Girl realizes that pain is a part of life, but she does not drown under the weight of struggle. The Carefree Black Girl searches for freedom and self-fulfillment beyond society’s paltry offerings. She seeks what white supremacy routinely denies her: the ability to radiate inner peace despite the harsh cruelties of everyday life. This does not mean that the Carefree Black Girl is not allowed to feel self-doubt, anxiety, fear,or disappointment.
Anti is as joyous as it is melancholy. Tracks such as “Desperado” and “Never Ending” showcase the unraveling of romance and the portrayal of love as a force of destruction and ruin. In the world of Anti, to be in love does not promise salvation. Love itself is often two-faced, a fight for domination and control. “Desperado,” which samples background vocals from “Waiting Game” by Banks, talks about a lover who is on the run and the prospect of escaping with him. Rihanna sings:
If you want, we can be runaways
Running from any sight of love
Yeah, yeah, there ain’t nothin’
There ain’t nothin’ here for me
There ain’t nothin’ here for me anymore
But I don’t wanna be alone
It is not love that motivates this unexpected union, but the tortured desire to run away. Similarly, “Never Ending,” written by Dido and Paul Herman, contemplates the mixed emotions of opening one’s heart after a devastating breakup. She sings:
They’ll never understand
This feeling always gets away
Wishing I could hold on longer
Why does it have to feel so strange
To be in love again, be in love again, be in love again?
Love is not portrayed as a magnificent source of pure happiness and freedom, but an unpredictable and mysterious enigma with its own agenda. Anti’s vision of the Carefree Black Girl is not superhuman or inhuman. She is complicated and vulnerable and does not sacrifice self-awareness for the comfort of oblivious denial. Billboard notes the moody peaks and valleys of the album’s sound, declaring, “Anti is evidence that being America’s foremost Carefree Black Girl is a beleaguering endeavor, one destined to land a bad gal in a bout of depression now and again.”
Looking inward is not always pleasant, and the truth is not always flattering, but self-reflection can act as a healing salve and serve as a defensive barrier against the antagonistic violence of white supremacy. Rihanna’s Anti is fueled by the basic principles of the Carefree Black Girl ideology. Yet listeners cannot discount the unflinching chameleon nature of the album or the fullness of its emotions. Anti presents the idea that the Carefree Black Girl is not about blocking out negativity or distress, but about using these emotions to achieve self-actualization. In other words, Black girl, in all your contradictions, you are enough.
About Vanessa Willoughby
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and freelance writer. Her bylines have appeared on, but are not limited to: Vice, Hazlitt, The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, The Billfold, Bookslut, and Book Riot. She is Creative Director for Winter Tangerine and Promotions Manager for Apogee Journal.