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If any doubts remained that Rihanna owns the pop song of 2007, they were erased at the beginning of her encore last week in New York. As the kick drums that power “Umbrella” started up, umbrellas started to open in the audience; by the time the song’s indelible, fading “ ... -ella, -ella, -ella” refrain arrived, adequate protection for a rainstorm twirled in front of the Barbadian singer. The moment was charming, amusing and seemingly spontaneous. So what if it looked a little like a video shoot? That was in keeping with the rest of the show, which featured two costume changes and well-choreographed versions of Rihanna’s hits.
There have been plenty of them in the past few years, during which Rihanna has established herself as a great singles artist and R&B’s pre-eminent futurist (no easy crown, that). While singers such as Beyoncé and Amerie subsume borrowings from hip-hop and techno within a traditional soul framework, Rihanna embraces the artificial. Her best songs are powered either by barely disguised, highly recognisable samples (Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” on “S.O.S.”; New Order’s “Blue Monday” on “Shut Up and Drive”) or electronic noise (“Umbrella”, “Push Up on Me”). And her face is geometrically cherubic, framed by a slick, angular bob.
She performed the first few songs at the Nokia in a dominatrix outfit, complete with thigh-high leather boots; her dancers carried whips. Still, she has some way to go before she can truly command a stage. Rihanna’s voice is thin, affectless and, on her robo-pop hits, often processed with sound effects. On record, she sounds like a glamorous teenage alien; on stage, she sounds brittle. She demonstrated that she can hold a note on an ill-advised cover of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love”, but frequently lip-synched or let her back-up singers carry the chorus. That’s somehow appropriate – after all, her appeal hardly rests on her authenticity – but it does make her a less convincing presence.
It also makes stagecraft more important. Rihanna had a lot of fun prowling around the front of the stage, throwing poses and snarling, and she also played the flirt nicely on the slow songs, perched just so on a staircase in a micro silver skirt. “Unfaithful”, a surprisingly thoughtful tune about infidelity and regret, might have got the biggest response of the night – the audience sang along to every word. Give her a bigger budget, better special effects, and a couple of years.