Rihanna w/J. Cole
Thursday, July 21
Better than: Being outside in weather that makes you feel like you’re perpetually trapped in the car with hot air blowing on you while you wait “just a few minutes while the engine gets going” for the AC to kick in.
A friend of mine recently introduced me to the phrase “browning out.” It’s the sneaky cousin of blacking out; parts of your evening escape you and you come to, usually over some street food, with little recollection of how you got to that point. That’s a little how the bus ride back from Rihanna’s show at the Izod Center felt; I came to as we made it back to New York, with a Nivea-provided temporary tattoo of the stars Rihanna has on her neck on my arm and clutching a tie-dyed pink t-shirt that I had earlier sworn I wouldn’t buy.
I’ve always been a passive listener when it comes to Rihanna. For me, she falls under the category of “getting ready” music, artists whose songs I can’t really name but whose tunes I catch myself humming absently. But when I was asked to cover this show, I knew I had to say yes, partly because my roommate has risked being kicked out of a party for putting “S&M” on too many times for me to deny her a live experience, and partly because I knew a big show like this would be fun—the kind of show that inspires Facebook photos of girls posing with their parents’ Grey Goose or a blurry shot of the stage, with a caption along the lines of “Rihanna BITCHEZ!!!!!!” (Emphasis on the exclamation marks.)
Here’s the thing, though; if you really love Rihanna, you already know exactly what a Rihanna show sounds like. And if you don’t really love Rihanna, it’s OK, because you too will already know exactly what a Rihanna show sounds like. She has almost enough recognizable hits to fill a 105-minute set, and I only had to internet-research a few songs’ names (shouts to @chocolatebobka for helping with “Man Down,” which is kind of a jam).
She opened with “Only Girl In The World,” rolling out onstage in a giant hamster ball and wearing a blue lamé trench. That was ripped off to reveal what looked like a day-glo diamond-encrusted diaper (it brought back memories of my third-grade dance recital) and she launched into “Disturbia.” I knew some of the words to that song! I could sing along! I didn’t have to think too much about it! And sing along I did, while RiRi let a conveyor belt move her across the stage as she attempted to dance.
Rihanna isn’t much of a dancer, but she has two go-to moves. One is pure stripper, and mostly consists of bending at the waist and dragging a hand up her legs. I get that, I totally do—she’s a pop star. But the other move is this weird ditzy-zombie thing where she kind of lets her head loll around on her neck and moves her arms like they are made out of lead. I don’t get that one. She pulls out the ditsy-zombie a lot, and really got into it during her cover of Sheila E.’s gem “The Glamorous Life”; during that song, she corpse-strutted out to a drum kit in the middle of the floor and tried to play along. She couldn’t. She should use the drum-solo practice time to figure out what she’s trying to convey with her zombie dance.
The stripper move, though, she’s really good at. And she likes it. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention and she was always like this, but, boy, Rihanna just wants to touch herself. She did it during “Shut Up And Drive,” spreading her legs and touching her crotch while she reverse-humped the junked car on stage (later, fans beat it with baseball bats). She touched herself during “Man Down,” while videos of her dressed up as a man, smoking a cigar and flirting with Female Rihanna, aired behind her. She touched herself frequently during “Skin,” where she sings a lot about a secret. The secret seems to be that she needs to get laid. She emphasized this when she brought a dude onstage and actually humped him into the ground (seriously—the platform they were on sunk under the stage, at which point the mom in front of me looked ready to pick up her seven-year-old son and bolt). And she definitely touched herself during “S&M,” after she ripped off her black suit (with Roger-Rabbit-style bowtie) to reveal a leather leotard and started smacking her backup dancers’ butts with her black-diamond-encrusted walking stick.
Also during “S&M,” she kneeled on a box and then these silver-gloved hands that reminded me of Labryinth came out of nowhere and started rubbing her lower half. (Again, the mom in front of me was posed to scoop and run.) The hands, it turned out, belonged to some beefed-up Bret Michaels lookalikes—headscarves included!—and when they emerged from below the stage they were all carrying silver pillows; the whole thing then turned into a sexy sadomasochistic pillow fight. Or something.
The crowd ate this up. In attendance were a lot of ladies, a lot of bachelorette parties and birthday parties (who left in stretch limos drunkenly screaming along to “Birthday Sex” and rebuffing advances from strange men), and older women who threw themselves at opener J. Cole when he walked out into the crowd to watch the end of the set. Half the crowd seemed like they had been recently scorned, belting out all the lyrics to “Take A Bow” and not even cracking a smile as Rihanna pantomimed the lyrics, a routine that included a very sassy TV channel-change. The other half seemed like they were pining over someone—their big hit was “California King Bed,” during which fireworks went off. This didn’t seem safe, given the material her outfit was made out of, but they pay people to worry about those things so I didn’t.
Can we talk for a second about her outfits, though? First, there was the diamond diaper, which I was so into, and these fantastic hot-pink patent leather booties. The leather leotard for “S&M” was cute and all, but then there was a military section where she came out riding cannons (which shot t-shirts, not confetti as I hoped) and she wore a dress covered in silver pallettes and this army vet cape, which looked weirdly cute together. Then came the yellow floor-length prom gown, which Jessica McClintock is going to be all over for formals in 2k12. Then she went back to diapers, only this time it was made of denim and was giving her wedgies, it seemed. (Stars! They’re just like us!) She also had a giant Pebbles Flintstone bow in her hair. The best outfit, though, was the encore outfit, a dress/leotard combo that hung off the shoulder in a way that would have seemed prairie-appropriate if it wasn’t made of gold lamé. I want one in silver too.
I got so excited about that outfit that I was typing on my phone and didn’t look up until the crowd roared. Oh, hey, Jay-Z walked out! He looks good! He is definitely in performance shape—his hair is cut, he’s not puffy at all, he looks like Bey (or Gwyneth) got him on some macrobiotics. He seemed happy, like he had just come off letting Funkmaster Flex spend 30 minutes dropping his new track or something. They tore into “Run This Town,” but maybe I should just say he, because Rihanna was content to step back and let him shine. Smart move, Ri, because he killed it. Everyone went nuts. A security guard had been dancing near me the entire show looked like she was going to have a heart attack; Jay-Z does that to people. He led into “Umbrella” and walked offstage, probably getting in his air-conditioned helicopter back to the city.
Note to all the clowns who left before the encore: Never leave before the encore at an arena show! Even if the “best rapper alive” isn’t coming out, there’s at least some confetti. Luckily, this show had both, and as the confetti shot out and I scrambled out of the Izod Center, desperate to make my way out of New Jersey before everyone else trying to make their way out of New Jersey. I updated my Facebook status to let everyone know that I had just seen Jay-Z because hey, what’s the point of going to a show like that if you’re not going to tell everyone what happened? I had become one of those girls. That’s when I came to.
Critical bias: I am a huge Beyoncé fan, so I judge everything Ri does against Bey. This is patently unfair but whatever, B’s the queen.
Overheard: “No one famous is coming to New Jersey.” (Famous last words!)
Random notebook dump: When we were trying to navigate NJ Transit in Penn Station, we met a really nice man who asked us who we were seeing in Jersey. When we told him, he told us excitedly that he had sixth-row seats to her show in Philly on Saturday, then whipped out his iPhone to show us his background—a picture of Rihanna!
Only Girl In The World
Shut Up And Drive
The Glamorous Life
Live Your Life
Hate That I Love You
California King Bed
Pon de Replay
Cheers (Drink To That)
Take A Bow
Run This Town (feat. Jay-Z)
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 22, 2011