Cee Lo Green dominated headlines this past weekend by unexpectedly dropping out of Rihanna’s “Loud” tour. The R&B virtuoso cited his many obligations — including a star-making role as judge on NBC’s hit competition show “The Voice” — as the cause for his departure. The sold-out tour, packaging Rihanna and Green, seemed primed for overwhelming success — without Green, however, the arena tour seemed to be more of a stretch for Rihanna and many critics questioned whether the 23-year-old was primed to fill such cavernous venues on her own. After Tuesday night’s stunningly-executed performance, we can safely lay those concerns to rest.
The evening was stratified into five major sections, each with its own unique energy and wardrobe theme. Overall there was a high-volume of neon attire worn by the dancers, and Rihanna shifted between sequined bikinis and elaborately revealing costumes. Opening with the pulsing four-to-the-floor of “Only Girl (In The World),” Rihanna quickly established the show’s overall blend of sensual dancing and exuberant rhythmic density while moving lightly across a stage outlined in rippling neon lights and chrome flat-screen monitors. Entering into the song’s full-throated hook, Rihanna unleashed a voice of surprising tenacity that would propel much of her performance. There was an undeniable attitude conveyed that seemed to transcend her digitized, pop-star trappings: an overwhelming feeling of an artist capturing her moment in the limelight and loving every minute of it.
She slowly teased out the hits as the night progressed, choosing to focus the early portion of the show on album deep cuts and lesser-known material. Those songs, while usually effective, lacked the full-blown brilliance of her major hit singles, including the performance’s twin high-points, “What’s My Name?” and the night-capping banger “Umbrella.” The former tune is the star’s pitch-perfect stab at pop music and her band took its sticky-sweet melodicism to ecstatic heights, punctuating each hook with bristling synth runs and stuttering drum fills.
From the exuberant strut of “Run This Town” to the relentless rhythmic power of “Rude Boy,” Rihanna effused an energetic sensuality. She seems to effortlessly revel in the role of Venus in Furs, overpowering men and women alike with a sense of her physical beauty and the power that comes with it. At one point during the set she emerged from a steel cage clad in a man’s jet-black suit and proceeded to whip one of her dancers. The domineering, sadistic woman is the character most present in her work and live show, but just as she can play dominatrix, she can also play the role of the conquered — wearing chains and writhing suggestively at center stage during a reading of recent-hit “S&M.”
It seems that the only consistency in Rihanna’s portrayal of love and pleasure is that it should involve a healthy dose of pain. After all she’s endured in her own, real-life abuse drama with former beau Chris Brown, it seems strikingly appropriate that she now chooses to celebrate the physicality and brutality of romance instead of shying away from its darker points. She owns it now, all of it — the good and the bad and the brutal. Her strength as a performer is only heightened by this startling awareness of love’s dark side.