Rihanna – “ANTI”

(Photo courtesy of Roc Nation Records)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” “Higher”

After months of teasing, delays (and rumored Adele delays), fights over the rights to the songs, and non-album singles, Rihanna’s long-awaited 8th album “ANTI” is finally here. It’s her first album since 2012 – by far the longest break in her career. Her first seven came out between ’05 and ’12, with ’08 the only year without a release. Even if it was delayed, the launch was haphazard; she dropped the Drake-duet “Work” as a single, and someone at Tidal accidentally put the whole album up. So this afternoon she released the whole thing for free. It was the same mistake that Kendrick Lamar went through with “To Pimp a Butterfly,” except that this album more relates to the haphazard way it was released.

The disparity between “FourFiveSeconds” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” hinted that “ANTI” might have a mixed feel to it. The former song was a somewhat tender and unexpected triplet with Kanye and Sir Paul McCartney. The latter was minimalistic, but brutal and throne-grabbing (and made our list of the ten best songs of 2015). And indeed, “ANTI” bathes itself in ideas, never fully committing to any of them. The album’s midsection is the weak point. “Desperado,” “Needed Me” and “Yeah, I Said It,” are all tracks that meander through basic rhythms, feeling unfinished and unrelated to anything else going on. Likewise, Rihanna’s lyrics don’t always complement her changing musical styles. They’re also relatively inconsistent, although she can still make simple drug songs sound exciting.

There are glimmers of greatness on “ANTI.” “Consideration” and “Woo” are both great scratchy, dancehall tracks. And the 6:37 “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” an unexpected cover of the Tame Impala song from last year, is a fully-realized, dreamy journey that improves on its source material. After that track, the album closes on four songs closer to ballads, most of which could have fit on earlier Rihanna albums, but all of which are great. Closer “Close to You” has a particularly affecting piano line.

There’s only two guests on the album, both effective. Rihanna plays off of SZA very well in opener “Consideration,” and “Work” is another notch in the Rihanna/Drake collab canon. Another note is standout “Higher,” which clicks in at just one second past two minutes, but is one of the best vocal songs she’s ever delivered. It’s a moment, a quick one, of sheer vulnerability from the normally zipped-up singer.

The problem with “ANTI” is that her intentions are unclear. At times, she wants to go in new directions and at others, she’s content doing what she’s been doing. The album would be stronger if it committed more fully to any of its ideas, but instead it meanders and becomes very inconsistent. The scratchy tracks are my personal favorites, but there are different takeaways from the album. It is as inconsistent in quality as it is tone, and although the production is great (with a long producer list), it feels like a partially-finished puzzle. Rihanna is trying to change her musical path, I think that’s been obvious for a little while, so whatever comes next could be more complete. But this album, her first without any real bangers, feels like a bad idea with many good, small ideas inside of it.

-By Andrew McNally

Iggy Azalea – “The New Classic”

(Photo Credit: NME)

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Walk the Line” “Fuck Love”

So let’s get this out of the way: it’s tough to tell who Iggy Azalea is, and who she’s trying to be. The white, Australian-born young woman channels Southern and Western American hip-hop in her music. Azalea has, for a while, been attempting to adopt a heavy rap persona. But it often feels forced, as it should for a persona whose very basis is this questionable.

“The New Classic” is not a consistent album. Opener “Walk the Line” is almost a call to arms, with Azalea’s vigorous and incendiary rapping. But it’s a momentum that isn’t kept up. A majority of the album is hybrid trap music and dance-pop, often midtempo tracks that range from great to dull. “New Bitch” has a surprisingly personal and reflective rhythm, even if the lyrics don’t match. But it’s followed by “Work,” a song very similar in tone but frustratingly less interesting. “Fuck Love” is an ending as intense as the opener, serving as strong bookends for the album, but what’s in between is wildly inconsistent.

Azalea is a talented rapper, accurately channeling her southern influences. Usually she’s forceful and dominating, but she’s introspective when she needs to be. It usually fits the music, which defies genres on some songs. “Fancy,” with Charli XCX, is almost a straight dance-pop song, where tracks like “Change Your Life” (with T.I.), is a cross between trap music and traditional hip-hop. “Goddess” is a straightforward song, but one that builds to an unexpectedly big climax.

But these crossovers don’t really fit with each other, and these better songs are bogged down with some overlong songs and some tepid ideas. The album’s inconsistency is it’s biggest fault, and one that keeps it from living up to it’s title. And knowing Azalea’s past and her attempted image, it doesn’t feel real, even if it occasionally sounds like it should. “The New Classic” marks Azalea as a talented force in hip-hop, but it also questions what exactly her placement should be.

-By Andrew McNally