The most telling moment in Wednesday’s Rihanna concert at a packed KeyArena came during her radio hit “Jump,” when flames blasted from the stage in sustained geysers, and you could feel the heat several rows back from the stage. It must have been scorching for the 25-year-old pop star. But she kept a poker face, swiveling her hips, controlling the moment.
You’ve seen Beyoncé go a little too hard in performance maybe — a little too fierce — but you’ll never see Rihanna sweat.
The tabloid-darling and multiplatinum seller did a two hour set with decent singing and great choreography. There were artistic video projections (in the style of “seapunk,” which you might need to Google) and lots of the aforementioned pyrotechnics. But for all the sizzle, what came through most was Rihanna’s coolness. She fronted like a thug — middle finger salute and all — and floated backup dancers’ complicated steps like they were nothing, her chilled demeanor accentuated by the icy tone of her singing voice.
She began the show on her knees and quickly got into “Birthday Cake,” the most sexual of her duets with physically abusive flame Chris Brown, who notoriously beat her in 2009. From there her best songs were “Loveeeeeee Song,” “We Found Love” and “Umbrella” (where she blew a chance to make a Bumbershoot reference).
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The 1990s vibe was strong. “Jump” takes its chorus from 1996’s “Pony” by Ginuwine. “We Found Love” repackages ‘90s rave music in today’s ADD club style. Dancers’ apparel came from ‘90s rapper Da Brat (oversize baseball jerseys). And Rihanna’s physical effortlessness and goggle-shaped sunglasses recalled ‘90s R&B icon Aaliyah.
Missing, though, was the hopeful feminism of ‘90s female pop stars. They made songs about equal treatment and pointedly not tolerating abuse, with stars like En Vogue and Missy Elliott bent on improving the situation of their sisters. Rihanna hasn’t taken up their mantle.
Opener A$AP Rocky, a rapper from Harlem, was 100% pastiche, borrowing lyrics, cadences and beats from Lil B, Main Attrakionz, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and the Memphis-based strain of Satanic rap. The audience dressed just like he does in his videos, in clothes printed with pentagrams and upside down crosses.
Darkness is having a mainstream moment, and Rihanna’s codependency with Brown is part of her image, because being self-destructive is cool (see the movie “Spring Breakers” to get in touch with this zeitgeist). In keeping with this vibe, her stage set included rows of partially ruined Greek columns, crumbling totems for her own persona. But can she really remain steely and calm while the drama surrounds?
She did at the Key. It had to have been an illusion.
Andrew Matson: @andrewmatson or email@example.com