Rihanna

Rihanna spent far more time on the trappings than the arrangements of the songs delivered.

When she first emerged on the scene, Rihanna was the very embodiment of sweetness and light, a purveyor of airy pop all but untouched by real world troubles. Times, to understate things, have changed for the Barbadian singer, who has traded the bubblegum for barbed wire – and the gentle island breeze for hurricane force gales.

On this, the Gotham stop on her first large-scale trek across North America – dubbed “The Last Girl On Earth” tour – Rihanna surrounded herself with props, including a hot pink tank and a trashed car that she sledge-hammered, a la punk pioneer Wendy O. Williams. Unfortunately, she spent far more time on the trappings than the arrangements of the songs delivered, which ranged from the blithely catchy {“Rude Boy”) to the dishearteningly leaden (“Rehab”).

Drawing heavily on her new “Rated R” album, a set piece of sorts about bad romantic vibes inspired by her disastrous relationship with fellow singer Chris Brown, the perf cast Rihanna as a sort of avenging angel capable of conveying unhinged anger (on “Disturbia”) and worrisome anxiety (on a careening version of “Russian Roulette”).

Ultimately, the 22-year-old was hampered by her utter lack of emotional depth as a vocalist. She hit her mark time after time traversing the post-apocalyptic staging – which bodes well for her impending big-screen turn in the board-game adaptation “Battleship” – but in the end, the snarl of “Breakin’ Dishes” and the giggle of “Umbrella” were all but indistinguishable.

Ke$ha opened the proceedings with a peripatetic set that put a post-modern take on the pop perfs that peppered network variety shows a generation or two back. Flitting from style to style like Cher on steroids, she took on frothy Euro-pop and feather-light hip-hop – even strapping on a guitar for some old-school hair-metal, Ke$ha dealt out a series of vignettes that were clearly Xeroxed, but somehow cartoonishly vivid enough to captivate.

Rihanna/Ke$ha

Madison Square Garden; 19,400 capacity; $139.50 top.

Production

Presented by Live Nation. Bands: (R) Rihanna, Tony Bruno, Eric Smith, Nuno Bettencourt, Adam Ross, Chris Johnson, Kevin Hastings, Hannah Vasanth, Ashleigh Haney, Kim Ince; (K) Ke$ha, Elias Mallin, Max Bernstein, Jenn Stone, Lauren Morris, Raquel Shouse, Austin Westbay, Logan Schyvynck (dancer). Reviewed Aug. 12, 2010.

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