Billed as both a comeback after her recent personal problems and a launchpad for her new album, Rated R, tonight’s free Rihanna gig finds the 21-year-old Barbadian on aggressive form.
With the stage decked out like a disused Radio Rentals – old TVs are piled up on both sides – complete with oddly strewn silver mannequins, Rihanna emerges suddenly from the front of the stage, her barely-there outfit augmented by a black lace face mask.
As the thunderous beat of new song Wait Your Turn (co-produced by tonight’s support act, British production duo Chase & Status) kicks in, Rihanna assumes her default setting for the night; prowling from left to right, punching her fists or, as she sings “I’m such a fuckin’ lady”, grabbing her crotch.
If the new album represents a new image, it’s clear that this revolves around being aggressive and puffing her chest out. Many will assume this is as a reposte to the travails of the last year, and it’s clear from the equally in-your-face Hard (featuring a typically gruff cameo from Young Jeezy), that her coping mechanism is to show us who’s in charge. Any hint of ‘victim’ is dismissed in an instant.
New single Russian Roulette is a dramatic highpoint, Rihanna sitting on a revolving leather chair as the minimal, clipped beat evolves into a sky-scraping chorus. As she ascends the steps at the back of the stage, she puts two fingers to her head as a gun shot sounds out. It’s a shame that this marks the end of any new material, and more of a shame that these three songs have already been officially ‘leaked’ as teaser tracks in anticipation of the album.
From there, the rest of the night finds older hits such as Don’t Stop The Music and the ubiquitous Umbrella ramped up with layers of guitar, which works well on the former but somewhat swamps the latter, as if Fall Out Boy had been commissioned to do a remix. Recent Number 1 singles Take A Bow and Disturbia are performed acoustically, whilst the hook from TI‘s Live Your Life is belted out after a quick costume change.
The real highlight of the night comes thanks to a special guest. As the marching beat of Run This Town begins, out strolls Jay-Z, completing a run of cameo appearances that began the previous night with Beyoncé at the O2 Arena. On that occasion his presence didn’t overshadow the headliner, whilst here he shows his young charge how to properly work the crowd. He stays for the beginning of Umbrella, leaving the ecstatic crowd waving actual umbrellas about and generally grinning from ear to ear.
But after just 40 minutes this streamed-to-the-world event is over. Thanks are given to the sponsoring telephone company (“Nokia” is shouted out with the same gusto as “London”) and the lights go up. As a teaser for her new album it’s a success, showing just enough to introduce the new image and leave the crowd wanting more. But it also highlights how far Rihanna has to go if she wants to be seen as a great performer. Despite the outfits, the shock of orange hair and the aggression, you find your attention wandering too easily.