Rihanna’s latest album ANTI is everything I didn’t know I needed in life. I enjoyed the "Consideration" intro with SZA, the previously released “James Joint”, and the Drake-assisted “Work”. But the song that stayed with me was “Needed Me.” Instantly. I did that fist-to-mouth, jump up and down thing I do when I hear a really dope song. “Needed Me” opens up with a DJ Mustard-signature beat. It’s a dark anthem with a crossfaded off codeine and a blunt vibe. The beat drops and Rihanna kicks in the door with:
Fuck a horse and carriage indeed! This is not your typical fairy tale. This is not the narrative we’re used to. Isn’t she supposed to be enthralled with a man and in agony that she’s not being loved right? Not up in here. We start the story with Rihanna already being a complete autonomous individual. “I was good on my own.” And the story ends with the same energy: “Never told you you could have it." So wait they don’t even end up together happily ever after?!
This is why I love Rihanna so much - her absolute refusal to just go along with any old narrative. Media and fans alike desperately wanted to shape her into a helpless, broken victim of domestic violence and she’s done everything in her power to eschew that label and just live her life. On “Same Ol’ Mistakes” a calm but annoyed Rihanna sings:
“Needed Me” comes almost as a response to Drake’s thin-line-between-melancholy-and-misogyny smash hit “Hotline Bling”. Drake details that ever since him and his lady broke up, she got exactly what she asked for, running out of pages in her passport, hanging with some girls he's never seen before. He annoyingly thinks aloud to no one, since she definitely isn’t the one sticking around to listen to him, Why you never alone? Why you always touching road? Used to always stay at home, be a good girl, you was in the zone. You should just be yourself.”
Every time I hear "Hotline Bling" I laugh at how happy this girl is after Drake finally left her alone. She's traveling, reconnecting with her girls, and living her best life! At the end of the day "Hotline Bling" is a trash song about Drake being mad that a woman healthily and happily moved on while he scrolls through her pictures. Songs like Rihanna’s “Needed Me” show the other side of that supposedly tragic scenario: Baby don’t get it twisted. You was just another nigga on the hit list. Tryna fix your inner issues with a bad bitch…. Never told you you could have it. Rihanna puts this another way on “Sex With Me” I know, I know. I make it hard to let go. You’re going to have to get over this.
ANTI showcases Rihanna in complete control of her sexual desires and her bigger narrative as an artist. She’s dominant. We’ve seen this kind of agency and sexual liberation with female rappers before; however, those perspectives were shared in a mostly-male space. Lil Kim ran with Biggie, Foxy Brown with Jay-Z. That is only noted to say there is something awesome about Rihanna expressing this sexual agency from the center of her R&B/Pop world - a space where women are expected to be softer, if you will. Rihanna’s critical self-awareness of her actions and romantic decisions on ANTI are to be applauded: "There ain’t nothing here for me anymore, but I don’t wanna be alone” . There are no dreams being bought or sold here.
But what if I told you this is how many women operate? That our entire society is filled with savage women? What if I told you not every woman is a damsel in distress waiting to be delivered by dick? What if I told you that when Rihanna sings I know you don’t think it’s right. I know you think it’s fake. Maybe fake’s what I like. Point is I have the right, women collectively clap as they flashback to that time they called their ex just because they wanted to have sex? Am I blowing your mind?
What Rihanna did thematically with ANTI reminds me of what Beyoncé did with her self-titled BEYONCÉ- having a ball, living her life, and disproving false virgin/whore dichotomies. They’re bosses, superstars, and sexual beings. And it’s dope. When Beyoncé sang You got me faded, baby, I want you. Can’t keep your eyes off my fatty daddy I want you people freaked out. Not only is she talking about wanting to have sex, she’s using some atypical "kink" language that we’re not used to hearing from Bey. The twisted fairytale Beyoncé puts forth on “No Angel” is yet another example of two Black women expressing their authentic desires – not the ones they’re “supposed” to have:
Beyoncé and Rihanna are doing what more academics and activists should do - and that’s making parts of this feminist movement more accessible. It's easier to fight for a future that you can identify. They show us possibilities. All these think pieces on problematic pedagogy and nomothetic epistemology and other unnecessarily big words is one big circle jerk. The people we claim we want to work with and protect can’t even understand what we’re saying. So props to Bey and Rih for the work.
These offerings are particularly notable in a time when violence against women is becoming more and more visible. Rihanna’s own case and past trauma comes to mind. But here our biggest Black female singers are declaring that women are multifaceted creatures capable of professional, personal, and sexual freedom. And acknowledging and embracing that fact might just upgrade you.