It’s rare that pop superstars can successfully flaunt their sexuality, retain autonomy, push boundaries and provide creative substance. Wednesday at a near-capacity United Center, Rihanna enjoyed the best of all worlds. During a striking 110-minute concert, the vocalist balanced the personas of a fiercely independent woman, rule-breaking bad girl, spurned lover and party-starting host without compromising her integrity or believability. There was never a doubt about who dictated the terms or controlled the conversation. While laden with risqué motifs and skin-baring visuals, the hit-stacked performance portrayed the 23-year-old singer as an empowered female instead of a crass, submissive object of male desire.
Not that Rihanna is shy about using her glamorous body. She squeezed into several outfits that often revealed as much leg as possible. Daisy Duke shorts, strategically cut dresses and bikini tops left little to the imagination, as did flexible dance routines that emphasized the opening and closing of lower limbs. Fittingly, the singer covered Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” and took the song’s grinding references to heart while perched atop an illuminated throne, surrounded by leather-and-latex-clad female dancers. The sequence transitioned into the spicier “S&M,” complete with role-playing and faux chains. Yet for all the freaky suggestiveness, Rihanna avoided tastelessness. In closing with an innocent pillow fight, the scene served as exuberant fantasy and thematic support.
Imagination fueled elaborate stage productions that encompassed conveyor belts, hydraulic devices, rotating platforms and an array of contraptions on which the singer made grand entrances. Rihanna rode in on a futuristic pod for the opening “Only Girl (In the World),” the high-tech look enhanced by her electric-blue dress, chartreuse hoop earrings and neon-pink heels. The fashion show and make-believe scenarios continued for the reggae number “Raining Men,” during which she rolled out on a pink tank turret, proudly commanding a platoon of camouflage-festooned dancers and singers.
The military-inspired prop, as well as the skeleton frame of a burned-out car that got hammered by baseball bats during the metal-tinged “Shut Up and Drive,” carried over from the vocalist’s previous tour. But for Rihanna, such violence — simulated or implied — assumed the form of personal catharsis. She put forth a tough defense and swaggering demeanor, exacting justice by any means necessary on the Caribbean-accented “Man Down” and spoiling for a fight on “Breakin’ Dishes,” an anger-streaked song that witnessed her venture onto the venue floor and towards a small satellite stage.
As entertaining as the spectacles proved, Rihanna was equally effective when pairing with her backing band, bereft of any fancy accessories. With arrangements that rocked harder than on record, and thick bass lines adding muscle to the grooves, the Barbados-born vocalist matched the increased heaviness with raw resiliency. She stripped “Love the Way You Lie (Part II)” down to its piano core, wisely choosing to leave Eminem out of the mix. “Take a Bow” similarly blended pain and relief, with Rihanna finding finality by working through the hurt.