Rihanna has it all -- a good voice, good songs, the bod, the overt sex drive -- and on her flashy, extravagant and occasionally salacious current tour she crams it all into one jaw-dropping, head-spinning two-hour concert.
The 23-year-old superstar brought her Loud tour Wednesday night to Chicago's United Center, maximizing the space with nearly every arena gimmick in live music. Rihanna rose and descended through the stage floor, hovered on platforms and danced on risers that brought her close enough to ecstatic fans to high-five them. Mobile video screens craned overhead, fireworks exploded, smoke snorted and fog seeped. She changed clothes five times.
It was a deluxe pop spectacle -- but an artfully managed and extremely well-sequenced one. The show flowed almost narratively, opening with "Only Girl (In the World)" and wrapping with "Don't Stop the Music" and "Take a Bow," framing clusters of songs into neat set pieces. The theater and choreography, however, rarely restricted Rihanna's vocal talent (nary a lip was synced) or smothered her considerable, winking personality.
She's clearly made some notes at Lady Gaga concerts, even dragging out a clunker car on stage (a la the Monster Ball Tour) during "Shut Up and Drive." Her eight dancers climbed all over it, eventually beating the car with baseball bats -- and kicking one of the other dancers as he gyrated on the ground -- before Rihanna slumped against the front bumper to sing "Man Down," a controversial song about a revenge murder and her latest single from the "Loud" album. (It's a reggae song, too, sort of like Macy Gray's "I've Committed Murder." Why do the ladies turn to such peaceful music when they whack a guy?)
Ah, yes -- our Rihanna gets pretty freaky. That was the violence portion of the show. Next up, the sex suite, starting with a grungy take on Prince's "Darling Nikki," complete with Rihanna and her dancers grinding all over an S&M wheel. For the song "S&M," Rihanna was chained and spanked, ending in a pillow fight. "Skin" featured two male dancers on the stripper poles, then Rihanna plucked a female fan from the crowd, laid her back on the wheel and mounted her. (Parents of the many, many pre-teens in the crowd: How are you feeling this morning?)
To this point, Rihanna's energy level had been about medium. As if she was glad to have that requisite sexpot bit out of the way, she livened up considerably for the rest of the show. Returning to the stage astride a double-barreled tank turret, with dancers in camo and bearing pink rifles, she churned "Hard" into a frenzy and pulled her best Janet Jackson moves in "Breakin' Dishes." She concluded that song by sprinting to a platform in the middle of the arena and bashing a simple drum kit, covering a snippet of Sheila E.'s "The Glamorous Life." For the ballad set, she appeared in a flowing, canary-yellow gown; "Hate That I Love You," the most traditional ballad performed, was presented unplugged-style with acoustic guitar.
It ended with the whole crew in appropriately colorful outfits, like a street party in Rihanna's native Barbados and sounding the same (especially the Caribbean flavors of "Rude Boy," with Rihanna's one-tone baritone sounding as if she's toasting). Occasional love interest and hip-hop star Drake had appeared with Rihanna last week at a couple of her shows in his native Canada; alas, he did not show up for "What's My Name." She took a deserved victory lap through the crowd before two encores -- "Love the Way You Lie" as a piano ballad, suspended in mid-air, and a confetti-clogged "Umbrella" -- and everyone went home panting. For various reasons.
Rihanna's set list Wednesday night:
"Only Girl (In the World)"
"Shut Up and Drive"
"Breakin' Dishes" / "The Glamorous Life"
"Run This Town" / "Live Your Life"
"Hate That I Love You"
"California King Bed"
"What's My Name?"
"Don't Stop the Music"
"Take a Bow"
"Love the Way You Lie (Part II)"