If this was a “secret” gig, I’m a Victoria’s Secret model. For the fortnight since she pranced in such lingerie on a New York catwalk, Rihanna’s 777 tour – seven cities in seven countries in seven days – has been all over the internet. As publicity stunts go, it’s seen more mileage than Lady Godiva’s horse. The London date, coinciding with the release of the Bajan-born singer’s seventh album, Unapologetic, was the penultimate stop. The only mystery was the venue. Like the others, it was revealed on the day on Twitter. Woo. Hoo.
By this point, cabin fever had reportedly set in among the press pack and contest-winning fans travelling with Rihanna (guess what aircraft she’s chartered? Yup, a 777). Both groups have bemoaned the lack of face time with the star. Really, how much did they expect? Once the 24-year-old arrived on stage, just an hour late, the 777 concept showed remarkably few signs of jetlag, although tossing a co-branded smartphone into the crowd and brazen “shouts” to sponsors proved that Rihanna could always fall back on hosting a shopping channel should her pop career pall. Nor was there any mention of Unapologetic’s controversial duet with her abusive ex, Chris Brown. That’s grabbed enough column inches for now.
An opening threesome of “Cockiness”, “Birthday Cake” and “Talk That Talk” was crotch-clutching, hard-driven R&B. Rihanna prowled and preened in retina-stinging white pyjamas and a black bra. It felt like an imperial visit to a nightclub. So it was. Rihanna usually plays venues 10-fold larger than this 2,000-capacity rock haunt. A triptych of screens blazed with suggestive visuals: X-ray-like images of writhing bodies, Basquiat-style collages and, later, dark animations with a hint of Aubrey Beardsley. For a while, the sights were more intriguing than the sounds.
“Man Down”, the retro-reggae murder ballad, made best use of Rihanna’s band and brought the most character out in her voice – otherwise bolstered by backing singers and, it seemed, pre-recorded tracks. “Only Girl (In the World”), Rihanna the teasing rave soubrette, was a dancefloor demand for fealty. “Phresh Out the Runway”, a new song, had a fizzy gangsta shuffle; “Run This Town”, the Jay-Z number, pure hip-hop swagger. A soapy acoustic interlude – Rihanna switching into Mary J Blige-lite mode – confirmed that she’s by no means an exceptional vocalist, but then it’s the package that counts.
This brisk but enjoyable performance was as much about product placement as music, Rihanna being the most marketable asset. Yet that’s not to carp. The industry needs a buck; pop needs its personalities. Despite the exclusivity of the event, one secret of Rihanna’s success – exemplified here in the gilded rock-reggae of “Umbrella”, the thumpingly hedonistic anthem “We Found Love” and even the platitudes of “Diamonds” – is that she taps into the simple longings of street dreams, that her “glamour” appears, in a word, accessible.