Why Rihanna’s Anti Is The Most Underrated Grammy Nominee

Photo: Courtesy of Westbury Road Entertainment.
There's an exact moment in the 1998 romantic comedy How Stella Got Her Groove Back when we first see the recently divorced, overworked single mother protagonist, Stella (played by Angela Bassett), live up to the movie’s title. She’s vacationing in Jamaica, at a party with her best friend, when a younger local man, Winston — played by a smooth, chocolatey skinned Taye Diggs with an irresistible white smile — asks her to dance. Stella is stiff at first, reluctant. And then: Her shoulders unclench, a grin creeps across her face, and she begins to sway her hips. Almost exactly one year ago, I had my own get-your-groove-back moment. Except, I wasn’t a freshly divorced single mother, but a depressed, recently dumped single girl simultaneously dealing with heartbreak and career unhappiness. I was lost and desperately in search of my groove. And then, it returned to me, but instead of in Jamaica, it was in my little New York studio apartment, in the first bass-filled notes of Rihanna’s eighth studio album, Anti, a musical game changer that was released last year and inexplicably snubbed by the Grammy’s. Anti is Rihanna’s best album to date, and a complete departure from the pop-radio friendly hits she made for the masses. It’s a moody, swagger-filled work with gut-wrenching breakup songs, girl-you're-too-good-for-him anthems, and even a few eyebrow-raising sex tunes. When it was released, it was welcome inspiration for women who so often feel othered — pressured to make themselves smaller in order to please another race or gender. It’s the music form of a glass of deep, rich red wine we didn't know we needed and then couldn't stop drinking. I still remember the first time I heard the opening lyrics: "I come fluttering in from Neverland / Time could never stop me / No, no, no, no." I knew the album was going to save me from drowning in my sorrow. And it did. My shoulders unclenched, a grin creeped across my face, and I began to dance. Over the next year, whether it was during a sob-filled shower or a scandalous dance at the club, Anti became the soundtrack for this young brown woman to find her way back on track — to get her groove back. In 2016, every woman I know sent their friend an Anti song to help them deal with love’s complications; on Twitter, friends exchanged Rihanna GIFs with just the right lyric for the moment. "Kiss It Better,” ("Man fuck your pride / Just take it on back, take it on back, boy") made female listeners feel like it’s okay to revel in the beauties of a woman receiving oral sex. “Needed Me” ("Didn't they tell you that I was a savage? / Fuck your white horse and a carriage") gave us the confidence to flip our exes the middle finger instead of wallowing in post-breakup misery. And in the ballad “Higher” ("This whiskey got me feelin' pretty / So pardon if I'm impolite") the vocal notes were so raw they made you cringe. It reminded us that for everyone — even Queen Rihanna Robyn Fenty — love and life are crazy complicated, in a way she’d never revealed in her previous, more orchestrated albums, which only scratched at the surface of her publicly infamous relationships. Despite its alternative sound and racy lyrics — a surprise to those expecting yet another round of robotic dance tracks — Anti became just as mainstream as her past albums. A Black woman boasting about owning her sexuality and telling the man who did her wrong that he actually needed her was an affirmation to Black women, a small step toward feeling like, Hey, maybe our Blackness, our confidence, our womanness can be accepted by the mainstream, too. Anti was hailed everywhere from RollingStone and Entertainment Weekly to the crowded dance floors and private living rooms full of girlfriends venting over drinks. It’s double-platinum, and was downloaded more than 1.4 million times within 15 hours of its surprise release on Tidal. Eight albums in, Rihanna finally took some vocal risks that worked (see “Love On the Brain”) and embraced the darker side of her sound with the production of tracks like “Woo” and “Desperado.” It’s seductive, kaleidoscopic, and textured. It’s experimental with genres like rock and pop and reggae, but its core is true, passionate rhythm and beats. Which is why the Grammy’s Rihanna snub is like a slap in the face. Though Rihanna racked up an impressive eight noms this year, Anti was glaringly missing from the Album of the Year category, while Beyoncé’s Lemonade was, of course, nominated. The obvious question, which fans have not hesitated to ask since the nominations were announced: Do the Grammy’s think there’s only room for one Black woman in the biggest music category of the year?

There hasn't been more than one Black woman nominated for Album of the Year for the last decade (in many of those years, no Black woman was nominated at all).

After all, Rihanna is typically treated by the music industry as the wild urban party girl, almost like a stepsister to Beyoncé’s seemingly more serious, mainstream-acceptable elegance. Still, the message is that there isn't room for both of them: There hasn't been more than one Black woman nominated for Album of the Year for the last decade (and in many of those years, no Black woman was nominated at all). If, somehow, it didn’t have anything to do with race or comparing the two woman, perhaps the issue is simply that the Academy’s voting members weren’t ready to praise a Black woman for addressing life, sex, and relationships in a real, and yes, at times raunchy, way.
Some aspects of the album were recognized: The radio-topping “Work,” of course, received a couple nominations, as did the single “Needed Me.” Rihanna also got two nods for her feature on Kanye West’s “Famous.” But Anti itself, arguably the most experimental yet cohesive R&B album the industry has seen in years, only received Best Urban Contemporary Album as far as the music goes. And it is so much more than that. Especially when you compare it to two other albums that got Best Album nods: Justin Bieber’s Purpose and Drake’s Views. As a diehard Drake fan, it pains me to write this, but the critics were right for panning Views because of its whine-y lyrics and monotone, same-sounding tracklist. It was an overall far less innovative record than we're used to receiving from Drizzy (sorry, Boo). And Bieber’s Purpose was liked but not loved by critics. Sure, songs like "Sorry" and "Love Yourself," may have showed us a more mature side to the Biebs, but the album itself, as a body of work, didn't make much of a splash. While Lemonade and Anti are pieces of art that challenge norms in many ways, Purpose and Views are not. Giving Anti the recognition it deserves at the Grammy's this year could have been a major cultural win — for women, for brown women, for music. But it's not. So while I’m cheering on Rih for the nominations she did receive, I’m yet again disappointed at the Grammy’s for missing the mark and showing us one more time that the award show might be more about music industry politics than an actual representation of popular culture. But just like the Bad Gal will keep making music, I’ll just keep writing my opinions. To say Rihanna was snubbed? Not an exaggeration.

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