January’s much-delayed Anti album saw Rihanna – modern pop’s most prolific hit machine – turn her back on the bangers.
Featuring Prince-inspired slow jams, bluesy confessionals and, on the airy Same Ol’ Mistakes, a cover of Australian psych-rockers Tame Impala, it was an album that flashed Rihanna’s artistic credentials in big neon letters.
It’s testament to her talent and charisma, then, that this potentially worthy side-step into mature album artist territory hasn’t diminished her pop-star power. Watching her stalk around tonight’s minimal stage setup, she still looks like she’s having a ball, playfully flicking the finger at fans and relishing every pose during a brilliantly ragged Bitch Better Have My Money.
As with its parent album, the Anti world tour (which has already wrapped up 42 dates across America) is a statement as much as it is a piece of entertainment. Eschewing the lasers, pyrotechnics and Day-Glo fashions of previous tours, things are kept relatively low-key; the stage is basically two large light boxes joined by a floating bit of Perspex, while the muted outfits seem to take inspiration from Kanye’s all-beige-everything Yeezy line.
If the general mise en scène doesn’t convince people this era represents a new side to Rihanna, then opening the show with a ballad – 2013’s maudlin Stay – hammers it home. Climbing on to a small stage in the middle of the stadium, sporting something between a dressing gown and a boxer’s robe, it’s delivered with her face covered by a giant hood. The coyness doesn’t last long, mind you. By the time the lurching drone of Woo and the brazen Sex With Me are over, she’s already prowling around the main stage like a panther.
Peppered throughout the Anti album tracks – including a rib-rattling Desperado and the yearning new single Needed Me – are a selection of those gold-plated hits, albeit dashed out as medleys. A selection of her collaborations, for example, are sandwiched together midway through the set, but are over just as the crowd have finished roaring their arrival. All is forgiven, however, when the still-imperious Umbrella crashes in and takes things skywards; “London what the fuck is up?!” her reasonable reaction when it crashes to a close.
Often Rihanna dances and sings along to her older songs in the same way most of her fans do – smile on her face, arms outstretched, singing the bits she remembers (We Found Love is basically a crowd singalong). It’s easy to ignore this disconnect, because she still imbues them with her unshakeable Rihanna-ness; that perfect pop voice, the undeniable presence, that couldn’t-give-a-shit attitude.
The difference now is that she has a handful of emotional new songs in which the connection between song and subject is undeniable. So the closing trio of campfire singalong FourFiveSeconds, the bluesy Love on the Brain and the dramatic sweep of Kiss It Better are delivered with such conviction it feels like you’re watching a different artist. It’s not perfect, but then that’s never been Rihanna’s MO. It’s the imperfections that make her.
This article was written by Michael Cragg, for theguardian.com on Friday 24th June 2016 23.40 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010