Courtesy of Westbury Road Records
Courtesy of Westbury Road Records

Even with the release of a long-awaited new album, it’s a little misleading to say she’s back — given that she never left. Although “ANTI” is Rihanna’s first release since 2012’s “Unapologetic,” the Barbadian songstress has remained in the spotlight, and with her latest project she proves that she has a right to.

With “ANTI,” the 27-year-old appears to be more concerned with producing quality music over generating hits. Don’t get me wrong — there’s the radio-ready “Kiss It Better” clad with a languid, electric guitar riff and repetitive chorus, as well as “Work,” featuring the six god himself. But any time someone like Rihanna, singer of the angsty “Bitch Better Have My Money,” takes the time to cover psychedelic rock group Tame Impala on her first album in four years — something’s changed.

In the doo-wop-influenced “Love On The Brain” she asks, “What do I gotta do to get in your motherfuckin’ heart?” and the album closes with “Close To You,” a ballad carried by a melancholic piano melody reminiscent of her hit “Stay.”

But don’t think Rihanna’s traded all of her inner “bad gal” for love tunes. She raises a middle finger to men who thought they had ownership over her in the relentless “Needed Me” and screams “I don’t even really love you / I don’t even really care about you” in “Woo.” She shows great vocal diversity as well, remaining soft and controlled in some tracks while exhibiting edgy, strained vocals in songs like the soulful “Higher.”

“ANTI” opens with the SZA-assisted “Consideration,” in which Rihanna exclaims, “When I look outside my window / I can’t get no peace of mind” over a simple drum kick. The exasperation hits you right in the gut. But this lack of peace has birthed a far more introspective artist and as a result, we get better music. For that, I harbor a conflicted sense of gratitude and hope for more of this Rihanna in the future.

Rating: 4/5 Stars