Rihanna is many things: singer, actress, fashion designer, tabloid
mainstay. She's Chris Brown's on-again/off-again girlfriend, the youngest solo
artist in history to top the Hot 100 a dozen times and, according to Forbes, a
"social networking superstar."
One thing she's not is static. In an era of infinite entertainment options, multi-platforming is of course a key to staying in the conversation, an MO that's helped her ascend from potential one-hit wonder to global brand. But her shifting identity also reflects her youth: At 25, Rihanna, like many of the suspended adolescents in her fan base, isn't yet willing to decide which one of her many roles will define her.
If anything, she revealed more of them Monday night at Staples Center, where her Diamonds World Tour touched down for a sold-out concert that felt like four smaller shows strung together with costume and set changes. (She's to play Anaheim's Honda Center on Tuesday.)
So many Rihannas appeared over the course of the nearly two-hour show that the singer didn't have time to take up all the personas she's cultivated since she emerged in 2005 with the lightweight dancehall confection "Pon de Replay."
There was Rihanna the raver, pumping her fist as she belted the exuberant choruses of "We Found Love" and "Where Have You Been." There was reggae Rihanna, channeling her childhood in Barbados over the rubbery Antillean rhythms of "Man Down" and "You Da One." And, perhaps most appealingly, there was Rihanna, the keeper of some dank, unforgiving sex dungeon, snarling sadistically through "Pour It Up" and "Birthday Cake."
"Come and put your name on it," she sang over the latter's siren-like synth trills, as much a taunt as an invitation.
The effect was dizzying, but not desultory. In spite of the rapid shifts in style and tone -- or maybe because of them -- the singer inhabited each of her characters with total conviction, portraying a lifelike complexity often lost on A-list pop peers such as Katy Perry and Beyonce. The concert was defined throughout by the woman at the center of it, even though it moved quickly enough that she had to abbreviate songs such as "Take a Bow" and "Only Girl (in the World)" and skip hits such as "SOS" and "Disturbia" altogether.
The barrage of instantly identifiable tunes she did perform brought to mind another of Rihanna's selves: the superstar client prized by the top-tier songwriters and producers propping up the modern pop-industrial complex.
When her 2010 disc "Loud" was nominated for the Grammy Award for album of the year, the official list of creative contributors stretched to nearly a paragraph.
Yet to think of Rihanna this way -- as merely a voice (and an attitude) available for use by behind-the-scenes technicians -- misrepresents the power she exerts over her music.
In 2013, after the long soap opera that was her (reportedly finished) relationship with Brown, that power metastasized to a steely, willfully provocative bravado, as exemplified in songs such as "Phresh Out the Runway" on last year's "Unapologetic." Alas, few of the lyrics are quotable.
Backed by a six-piece band and eight dancers, Rihanna performed "Phresh Out the Runway" early in Monday's show too, jolting the audience with its buzzing, discordant beat. This was the sex-dungeon portion of Rihanna's set, and it was the concert's strongest, with the singer spitting out words at center stage as her musicians (which included Nuno Bettencourt of the hair-metal band Extreme on guitar) hammered the furious electro-goth grooves in "Talk That Talk" and "Cockiness (Love It)."
Occasionally Rihanna seemed more interested in moving than in singing, so she'd simply let her backing vocal tracks take over and join her dancers, who were dressed like holdovers from Janet Jackson's late-'80s Rhythm Nation. Her nonchalance about lip-syncing felt like just another thrilling confrontation.
Rave Rihanna summoned a surge of energy, as well, as did the sleek seductress in "Jump," which borrows its chorus from Ginuwine's 1996 R&B cut "Pony." "Jump" segued into a similarly slick, though vastly more wholesome soul-funk take on "Umbrella," the 2007 single that's probably still Rihanna's biggest song.
The star was less effective in a handful of reggae tracks and in several ballads that stalled the show's headlong momentum. An exception arrived in "Stay," her current radio hit, which she sang forcefully with minimal accompaniment, wearing a sparkly halter-top pantsuit reminiscent of mid-career Diana Ross.
But even when the intensity of Monday's show flagged, Rihanna seemed driven by the need to answer a question, one that's become central to her artistic project: How does one fit a real woman's contradictions into the 2-D space of 21st century celebrity?
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