She emerged wearing a monk’s robe, which was quickly removed to reveal a bikini and mesh coverup, for “Phresh Out the Runway,” the pulsating opener from her seventh studio album, “Unapologetic.” She proceeded to deliver hit after hit with a side of visual stimulation — the tour is like a burlesque show in the year 2050, all bare skin, pyro and shiny industrial fabric. But the most dazzling spectacle was Rihanna’s shy smile, which the perpetually bored singer flashed only when getting a ton of love from the audience members, as when they went wild for “Talk That Talk” or screeched when she said Washington knows how to “have fun, give love and get ratchet.” And once fans saw that smile, they spent the next 90 or so minutes trying to get Rihanna to reveal it as often as possible.
Concerts could be Rihanna’s finest medium. She is gorgeous on video; fascinating, if seemingly troubled, on Instagram and Twitter; undeniable on the radio and the dance floor. But onstage she is mesmerizing in different ways. The crowd was so invested in winning the approval of the beautiful, aloof woman in front of them that there was no space to think about tabloid headlines bearing her name or mentioning her controversial relationship with R&B singer Chris Brown, who assaulted her during a domestic dispute in 2009.
She mostly sang like she was saving her voice for a cooler city and executed suggestive choreography like a woman with innate sex appeal and natural grace who just couldn’t be bothered to deal with actual rehearsals. But when she was actually engaged, it was glorious.
During a dance-hall segment that included “You Da One,”
“No Love Allowed” and “Rude Boy,” the Barbados-born singer seemed happier and more genuinely energetic than at any other point in the night. She also seemed to get a kick out of turning her many duets and features into solo pieces: She didn’t need Drake on “What’s My Name?,” Kanye West on “All of the Lights,” Future on “Loveeeeeee Song,” Eminem on “Love the Way You Lie”or, most important, Brown on “Birthday Cake.”She proved that her hooks rule the world, and all those male verses are just window dressing.
And although her music is essentially created by committee in a state-of-the art music lab, where every note is pressure-tested for maximum catchiness, it’s still Rihanna’s voice behind some of the best pop songs of this young century. Though “We Found Love,”
“Only Girl (In the World)” and “Don’t Stop the Music” set the arena on fire, she seemed more interested in singing ballads, or what count for ballads in the dance-pop world. She belted out “Stay” and “Diamonds,” during her encore, and while she’s not a power singer, she gave both a pure, earnest vocal treatment and never once looked like she was stifling a yawn.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.