Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rihanna Review: Loud Tour, O2 Arena

Phwoaaar! She loves a bit of it, that Rihanna, don't she? Just look at all them song titles: S&M (fnar!), So Hard (whaey!), Rough (woof!), Rude Boy (crikey!). Single entendres haven't had this much action (stop it) since Julian Clary's glory days.

So what's in store for her live show? Basically a checklist of the genre tropes for the sexually confident young female pop star: Revealing her bra, grabbing her boobs, dancing on a pole, having a pretend wank over her tutti frutti hotpants, and doing that curious dance move where she forces a man's head into her nether regions, slaps it back and forth a bit, then steps over him.

Madonna and Britney and Janet have done it all before, and it was never this joyless and forced. Rihanna, not possessed of the most expressive voice in pop, sings lyrics like "sex in the air, I love the smell of it" with the hollow professionalism of an 0898 operator trying to bring a suicidal alcoholic to climax at three o'clock in the morning. It's faintly depressing.

Then something weird happens. Rihanna's singing Hate To Love You when a smile appears in the middle of her face. Her eyes flicker to life. She even appears to connect with the lyrics.

It's there again when she sings phones-aloft lung shredder California King Bed, dressed (relatively) demurely in a canary yellow ball gown.

Both are songs about the dissolution of a relationship - not the cheeriest of subjects but one that apparently carries more emotional resonance for our star than "whips and chains excite me".

Reanimated, Rihanna breaks into a sequence of big, dumb party anthems, and the night really takes off. A shimmying soca version of What's My Name and a celebratory Cheers (I'll Drink To That) are the late-breaking, rump-shaking highlights of a show that finally finds it's groove, just in time for the inevitable, valedictory encore of Umbrella.

Ever since that song thrust her into pop's major league four years ago, Rihanna's USP has hinged on her portrayal as a "bad girl" (a phrase she deploys in her lyrics with crushing regularity) but on the evidence of tonight's show, that image is no longer a comfortable fit.

Two sections of the set indicate a way forward. The ridiculous cod-reggae murder ballad Man Down allows Rihanna to develop her rebel persona without having to constantly remind us that she really, really enjoys sex. Alternatively, her fruity cover version of Prince's Darling Nikki, performed in a figure-hugging three piece suit, showed how utter filth can be delivered with a self-deprecating sense of humour (Rihanna later played another, more obscure Prince track, The Glamorous Life, complete with Shelia E drum breakdown, which shows she's been paying attention in the right places).

Will she bother to change a winning formula? Who knows. You don't get to be one of the planet's top three of global pop acts by embracing subtlety and But it'll be fun to watch what Rihanna does next - especially if she's having fun, too.

Only Girl (In the World)
Shut Up and Drive
Man Down
Darling Nikki
Let Me
Raining Men
Breakin' Dishes
The Glamorous Life
Medley: Run This Town" / "Live Your Life
Hate That I Love You
California King Bed
What's My Name?
Rude Boy
Cheers (Drink to That)
Don't Stop the Music
Take a Bow

Love the Way You Lie (Part II)

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