To see Rihanna perform at this particular moment is to watch a woman go through metamorphosis. What she is molting into is not yet clear, but fans were permitted the privilege of witnessing part of her progression on Sunday night, when she performed at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn.
This was the eighteenth stop on the world tour pegged to her newest album, called Anti, and each song and segment was executed perfectly. Rihanna treated the evening as an anthology of the past ten years of her career. Over the course of the two-hour performance, she carefully plaited her most beloved hits, including “Love the Way You Lie,” “Rude Boy,” “Take Care,” and “Run This Town,” into her newest — and, arguably, least commercial — songs.
Rihanna has sold millions of records and won nearly a dozen Grammys off those earliest hits, but the factory-produced pop princess who earned her platinum stripes is not the woman who showed up at Barclays Center, nor did she pretend to be. On Sunday night, Rihanna took a different tack. She offered herself in full, letting the new version of Rihanna clash with the old. Rihanna doesn’t so much dance as chime in on key choreography, including a couple of well-placed dabs and nae-naes, but she has gotten less stiff over the years, indicating a level of comfort onstage that is as charming as it is enticing — and she serves so much face and so many hair tosses that the moves (or lack thereof) barely even register.
Her set was literally and figuratively a blank canvas. Minimal blemishes marred the stark white backdrop. The majority of her outfits were cast in neutrals and naturals — sandstone, onyx, ivory, ochre, and slate — which isn’t to say they were boring or muted. There was an opulence to each look, an abundance of fabric that pooled around her limbs and puddled at her feet, giving the impression of deliberation and excess. Rihanna’s makeup was minimalistic goth: dark shadow across each eye and a dark matte lip to match. The entire palette felt steeped in the trends of the time, calling to mind Yeezy’s spring 2016 collection and Rey’s desert-wear from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The effect was, in a word, flawless.
Rihanna also performed with a live orchestra, no easy feat in a time when albums are often almost entirely electronic creations, digitally produced and remixed. Her new songs felt especially suited for live performance, although they didn’t seem to incite as much fervor from fans as her older material — not that she cared. (The two exceptions to that rule were “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “Work,” which sent everyone into a frenzy.) She chose to close the show with two songs from her new album, “Love on the Brain” and “Kiss It Better,” as sure a sign as any that Rihanna is confident in her choices, even if her fans are not yet there with her.
Seconds after we giddily introduced ourselves to each other, my seatmate, a self-confessed Rihanna stan, told me point-blank she had not heard the new album, nor did she have plans to listen to it. Like many diehard fans, she didn’t know what to make of Rihanna’s new sound: an uneven mixture of gutted r&b and a sharp departure from the thunderous electropop that made Rihanna a household name. But for years, Rihanna has been transforming into something bigger than the music she makes. At one point, she appeared to acknowledge that strange new reality when she asked the audience if anyone had the new album. She waited a beat and then continued: “Or did you steal it?” As the audience screamed and shouted, she shrugged and released a smoky tinkle of a giggle. “It doesn’t matter.”
But what, exactly, were we witnessing? The much-predicted arrival of a time when the artifices of the music industry, a/k/a record sales, truly no longer matter? The birth of a new era of mainstream r&b and pop? The consequences of Instagram likes mattering more than platinum hits? (It’s worth noting that Anti, despite the lukewarm reception, hit platinum back in January and continues to exceed expectations.) The entire night was an effort to unravel that knot and perhaps relay some insight into why Rihanna still commands stadiums even with this less marketable sound.
In August 2012, Oprah traveled to Barbados to interview Rihanna on the Caribbean island where she was born Robyn Fenty and discovered, at sixteen, by Def Jam Records. Rihanna, barefaced and barefoot, wearing a teal halter dress that brought out her emerald eyes, told Oprah that at the beginning of her career, she felt “claustrophobic,” pressured by the marketing infrastructure of a large label into being a sex icon, well before she turned eighteen. But she was determined to be a famous star, so she pretended to be confident. In the interview, she utters the mantra for people in need of strength and endurance: “I had to fake it until I made it.” Later, she also leans in and tells Oprah, “The marketing people at the label, they had a brand, an idea of what they wanted me to be, without figuring out who I was and then working with that. I felt stifled, because I don’t even know who I am at sixteen, seventeen.” The interview was conducted a few months before her seventh studio album, Unapologetic, would drop. That was the last major release in the four-year gap before Anti. It sheds some insight into why Rihanna inspires a reverence that doesn’t rely on a particular sound, or even a particular aesthetic or style — she’s human, growing like the rest of us, asking that we bear with her while she finds her way.
All night, Rihanna radiated a jubilance that was extremely satisfying to watch. Her joy is a form of freedom worth fighting for. In 2016 America, one can rack up a lot of points simply for looking the part — the theater of slayage matters, especially in an era of hyper-documentation, where fans expect to impress their own followers with snaps, grams, and tweets. It could be ruinous to deliver anything that wouldn’t incite envy when projected on a feed. Rihanna, never one to underestimate the market value of social media, knew better than to disappoint. She gave us realness, and even if it’s nothing more than a perfectly polished aura of authenticity, it makes for a damn good show while it lasts.