I now know the gentle curve of Rihanna’s buttocks like the back of my hand. From the moment the 25-year-old Barbadian singer comes on stage at Rod Laver Arena, she spends as much time with her back to us, undulating gently, as she does regard us through slitted eyes.
Throughout ‘Presh Out the Runway’ and ‘Cockiness’ there’s much dispassionate patting of her pony (as in “ride it, my pony”). Fun and freakish in thigh-high boots and a long black mullet, she stops just short of signalling “downtown” with a giant foam hand.
Rihanna’s message couldn’t be further than that of fellow thigh-flaunting diva Beyonce, who jumps to mind during the “put your name on it” refrain of ‘Birthday Cake’. The difference is, Rihanna’s not suggesting you “put a ring on it” – she’s suggesting you lick off her icing.
The flipside of the sex songs are the proud victim songs: ‘No Love Allowed’, ‘Nobody’s Business’, ‘Love the Way You Lie’, ‘Take a Bow’, ‘Hate That I Love You’. The singer’s love life is well documented enough that no further comment is needed, save to point out that the entire set seems to fall into one of these two categories.
Visually, the set brings to mind an ancient empire, studded with Janet Jackson-alike dancers though it is. Former Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt works his own arse off filling much of the stage. This actually marks his fourth world tour as Rihanna’s wardrobe assistant – noodling righteously whenever a costume change is called for. Kevin Hastings, meanwhile, provides synth sounds that are fat, mighty and pleasingly melodramatic.
Mid-set, Rihanna flaunts her Caribbean roots with the sunny ska of ‘You Da One’, ‘Rude Boy’ and ‘Man Down’, during which the stage is it up with warrants and mug shots. One headline declares Ri-Ri is “Wanted by the FBI” – maybe not, but she was wanted last week by the Thai police after taking a selfie with an endangered slow loris. But that’s another story.
Time Out feels it probably isn’t alone in craning to see when Rihanna is actually singing and when she’s not. There are so many layers of pre-recorded Rihanna – as opposed to backing singers, which are used sparingly – that she seems to chip in with whatever half-phrase (or half-word, on occasion) she feels like. (Anywyn Crawford in The Monthly this month hypothesises that this robotic, stitched effect is the natural progression of artists raised on AutoTune). The mash-up effect can be cacophonic and exhausting, but also uniquely hers.
A costume-change later, and Rihanna and the band are decked out in coloured leather like motocross bikers, leaping into the hit that started it all, ‘Umbrella’. Things take a dark turn for a sinister rendition of ‘Rockstar 101’ and the stormy ‘What Now’. There’s a further costume change into a relatively chaste dress for a torch-singer rendition of ‘Love Song’ – with added dancehall moves that manages to be the most obscene yet – and then another into a metallic silver dollar bill frock.
And then the hits really start coming – let’s not forget this is an artist who was released an incredible eight albums in eight years. ‘We Found Love’ – the track written for her by producer and DJ Calvin Harris – lights a firecracker under the crowd, and Rihanna takes a trip into the photographer pit to meet her public, getting lost in a sea of cameraphones.
There’s a strange lack of warmth to Rihanna, particularly when bantering with the crowd. The only reprieve is when a “You love me, you really love me” smile will occasionally spread across her face. There’s the unshakable feeling we’re watching a lost little girl, stomping around in the dress-up box heels.
As the set bears on, she seems to climb in energy, ditching the cool for wilder dancing. ‘Only Girl (In the World)’ morphs into a disco-heavy ‘Don’t Stop the Music’, then a ravey ‘Where Have You Been’, until it’s a veritable carnival on stage. Rihanna encores with ‘Stay’ and, of course, ‘Diamonds’ – utter crowd pleasers, both.
It’s fair to say the super-star is on probation tonight, after turning up on stage in Adelaide 90 minutes late, but there’s a thrilling arrogance to tonight’s show, in which she winds up bringing down the house without breaking a sweat. It’s as if she means to say: You see.