Oh, you thought you knew what a Rihanna concert would be like? You know nothing, and the pop superstar brought her floating plexiglass catwalk to the Frank Erwin Center in Austin on Saturday to prove it.
Ever since “Pon de Replay” introduced America to the Bajan singer in 2005, Robyn Fenty has slid from one stylistic niche into another with a stunning, organic subtlety that Madonna or Gaga could only dream of. Over more than a decade, Rihanna’s been a sand-encrusted dancehall ingenue, a sharply coiffed Top 40 android, a leather-clad rock-n-roll libertine, every rap god’s No. 1 chorus muse, an IDGAF stoner and a swaggering mafioso subverting hip hop gender tropes left and right. Her latest album, “Anti,” is as its name implies a direct clapback to anyone — listener or label — itching to lock the singer into a pattern. On the album, she ricochets from sparse reggae bar grinder to ’80s power ballad to psychedelic Tame Impala cover. It’s no surprise that the tour backing a kaleidoscopic album would be just as deft at refracting this pop queen’s shine a million different ways.
You don’t realize how many hits Rihanna’s had until she grazes the 30-song mark in one show, and then you realize that she barely touched her first five albums. Robed in white like an angelic prizefighter, she opened up a wound to kick things off on a bluesy, world-weary “Stay” while elevated on a platform in the back of the arena. Once derided for monotone vocals, Rihanna put her soul on blast more than once, notably belting it on country-tinged “FourFiveSeconds” and doo-wop torch song “Love On the Brain” toward the end of the show.
In a first quarter heavy on debauched jams and synchronized dancing, zeitgeisty “Bitch Better Have My Money” was a tactical assault. Rih’s delivery sat on a razor’s edge of vindictive focus as her backup dancers became a squad of beige-swathed mob capos, advancing on a stage made to look like a futurist desert. She ended the song with a reared-back pimp hand. The medley of mid-2000s features that followed — T.I.’s “Live Your Life,” Jay-Z’s “Run This Town,” Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” — segued satisfyingly into “Umbrella,” Rihanna’s star-making cultural smash. Remind ’em why they came, it seemed to say.
But back to that floating catwalk. You don’t hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts more times than Michael Jackson without a little production value. After belting “Stay” and “Love the Way You Lie” from the back of the Erwin Center, the translucent walkway transported Rih to the main stage via suspension wire, but not before she pounded the plexiglass to “Woo” and a strutting “Sex With Me.” The Anti World Tour also stacked giant police lights, cascading foam, a joint-dislocating dance crew and four separate costumes, ranked below in ascending order of fierceness:Janis Joplin in designer sunglasses and a leather corset Full-body, lace-up moccasin, making the case that Rih is this generation’s Cher Para-military Emma Frost Obi-Wan Kenobi, as costumed by Bob Mackie after a clearance sale on sequined tassels
So, yes, Rihanna’s Austin tour stop was a slick hit parade — that’s what the arena paid for, of course. But from the Caribbean patois of “Work” to the queer club rapture of “We Found Love,” Rihanna’s show also joyfully celebrated identities that haven’t historically been the first ones celebrated in mainstream entertainment. During “Take Care,” of all songs, two sparkly dancers poured into cowled leotards vogued the hell out of the Erwin Center, dueling death drops left and right. And lest you think homogenization has ever been on Rihanna’s mind, she’ll remind you that she’s the rude gal behind “Rude Boy.” If you were looking for deeper meaning in arena pop spectacle, the Grammy-winning provocateur was hiding it in plain sight … and behind a sequined jumpsuit or two.
Setlist:“Stay” “Love The Way You Lie” “Woo” “Sex With Me” “Birthday Cake” “Pour It Up” “Numb” “Bitch Better Have My Money” “Consideration” “Live Your Life” “Run This Town” “All of the Lights” “Umbrella” “Desperado” “Man Down” “Rude Boy” “Work” “Take Care” “We Found Love” “Where Have You Been” “Needed Me” “Same Ol’ Mistakes” “Diamonds” “FourFiveSeconds” “Love On the Brain” “Kiss It Better” ]]