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Rihanna's 'Anti,' Sia's 'This Is Acting' approach pop stardom in divergent ways

Almost as intriguing as the songs that appear on Rihanna's new album Anti are the singles that didn't make the cut.

There's her brooding, atmospheric American Oxygen. There's the icy banger B---- Better Have My Money. There's FourFive Seconds, an airy collaboration with Paul McCartney and Kanye West that was a worldwide hit.

And then you have Bird Set Free, Cheap Thrills, Reaper and Space Between, four songs co-written by fellow pop singer Sia and pitched for Rihanna's eighth album, but ultimately rejected. So instead, Sia scooped them up for her own new album, This Is Acting, which dropped the same week as Anti.

Two mononymous singers from opposite sides of the planet, both making their pitches for a new kind of pop stardom, on terms they themselves decided. With Rihanna performing at Tampa's Amalie Arena on Sunday, it's a good time to ask: What do Anti and This Is Acting say about the women who released them, and about the state of pop music at large?

• • •

That American Oxygen, FourFive Seconds and BBHMM do not appear on Anti is yet another sign that even in an industry dominated by singles, the album as a statement isn't dead.

Call it the Kendrick Lamar effect. In the wake of the rapper's widely praised 2015 LP To Pimp a Butterfly, more pop and hip-hop artists seem to be realizing that while a few bars of fire here and there can keep you relevant (see Lamar's cameo on Taylor Swift's summer smash Bad Blood), your album can still be a place to take creative chances, to reset and reassert your artistic purpose.

On her first album in four years, Rihanna swiftly does just that. "I got to do things my own way, darling," she coos over jazzy, neo-soul opener Consideration. "Will you ever respect me? No ... Why you ain't ever let me grow?"

It's a good intro to Anti's intriguing blend of progressive R&B and left-of-center soul, both largely unexplored territories for the 28-year-old Barbadian.

Tempo-wise, Anti is the slowest album in Rihanna's oeuvre — it's built for lounging, not dancing. And because Rihanna is never not on trend, her slow jams lean into the same dark shadows that have fueled so many recent R&B hits. The sparse Needed Me could be a feminist response to the Weeknd's nightmarish The Hills, while the sizzling Kiss It Better nods to Miguel, with its aching, squealing guitar solo. The jittery Woo (co-written by the Weeknd) chops up trippy samples and Rihanna's muffled vocals into a wicked, psychedelic buzz.

But this side of Rihanna occupies only about half of Anti. Elsewhere she exhibits an infatuation with indie rock and pop, faithfully covering Tame Impala on the head-trippy Same Ol' Mistakes, and reinterpreting Florence and the Machine on the Anti bonus cut Goodnight Gotham. The acoustic, gently plucked Never Ending so recalls Dido's circa-2000 hit Thank You that the English singer ended up with a songwriting credit.

The kickdrummy Love on the Brain is a traditional 6/8 slow-dancer, with a guitar that sways up and down the scale in classic '50s fashion (think the Righteous Brothers' Unchained Melody). The waltzy Higher is equal parts old-school soul and old-school country. ("This whiskey got me feelin' pretty, so pardon if I'm impolite.") And with its heartfelt piano and strings, Close to You might be the warmest pop ballad Rihanna has ever made.

Rihanna can never completely turn her savvy ear away from pop's hottest trends. The No. 1 single Work drifts deftly through the same tropical-house waters as, say, Justin Bieber's Sorry or Ellie Goulding's On My Mind. And the steamy deluxe-edition cut Sex With Me, a testament to her own desirability ("Stay up off my Instagram, pure temptation"), sounds like a viral hit in waiting.

But what's amazing about Anti is that despite the involvement of so many chart-topping writers and producers — Timbaland, the Weeknd, The-Dream — Rihanna sounds anything but thirsty for a hit. Finally, she has an album as fulfilling as her singles.

• • •

Over the past 20 years, Australian singer Sia — who co-wrote Rihanna's Diamonds, and has written for Katy Perry, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera — has evolved from an eclectic, slightly jazzy artist into a purveyor of Grammy-nominated pop epics like Chandelier.

Apart from her elaborate, identity-obscuring wigs, This Is Acting is Sia's boldest concept yet — a collection of songs written for, and rejected by, artists like Adele, Beyoncé and Shakira.

Knowing the songs' history presents an unfortunate conundrum: It's hard to hear the gentle piano flutter of Bird Set Free without imagining the voice of Adele (who, like Rihanna, also turned down the song), or the cheery tropical stomp of Cheap Thrills without dreaming of Rihanna's Caribbean inflection.

So it's best to ignore This Is Acting's much-publicized concept, and focus on Sia herself. Few singers have such a belty voice, and few are so quick to deploy it. She's firmly in the anthem business — the defiant Unstoppable should soundtrack a championship montage; Move Your Body, a Carnival parade through Rio. Footprints repurposes the old "footprints in the sand" chestnut to describe a relationship, but it's easy to imagine huge worship choirs performing it with the original, religious intent in mind.

Alive (a song co-written by Adele) is so utterly enormous it pushes Sia's pipes to their breaking point, which is actually a good thing — there's a humanizing charm in hearing her crack and rasp the words "I'M ALIIIIVE!" at the pinnacle of her register. Album closer Space Between has a similar effect, though the ambient track is more wearisome than exuberant.

There are endearing quirks on This Is Acting (children chanting on Cheap Thrills, a delightful Sisqo/Thong Song sample on Sweet Design) that feel like windows into the gonzo joie de vivre that inspires Sia's energetically choreographed videos and TV gigs. Perhaps we'd have heard more of this had This Is Acting been a through-and-through "Sia album," instead of an album of songs intended for others.

It's revealing, and often entertaining, to experience the pop music world through the eyes of an insider like Sia. It's also telling that none of her songs made the cut for Anti. Sia still believes in the undeniable power of a big, over-the-top single. But in shifting her focus to albums, Rihanna is thinking even bigger.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Ranking the contenders

1. Rihanna, Anti: One of pop's most bankable singles specialists takes a deep breath, slows things down and produces a full album that's surprisingly textured and satisfying, start to finish.

2. Sia, This Is Acting: These are big, anthemic songs written for others, and she mostly wears them well. But the real Sia feels just out of reach, leaving you craving a little more depth and invention.

IF YOU GO

Rihanna

The singer performs with Travis Scott at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $31.75 and up. (813) 301-2500 or amaliearena.com.

Rihanna's 'Anti,' Sia's 'This Is Acting' approach pop stardom in divergent ways 03/09/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 9, 2016 10:48am]
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