REVIEW | Singer doesn’t let past get best of her show
August 26, 2010
BY MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
Segmenting the action during Rihanna’s headliner show at the United Center Wednesday were video sequences that showed the singer in a deep sleep and monitored by computer technicians. Which suggested her subconscious was busy at work designing what came to life on the stage.
Paging Dr. Freud. Machine guns, mushroom clouds, and crashed cars were the dominant themes of her 90-minute show as was a life-size army tank (painted pink) parked in the crowd that became an unusual refuge for the singer and her crew to perform “Hate That I Love You,” a ballad about doomed love that became a feel-good, stadium singalong.
As the video sequence said: “Welcome to Rihanna’s World.” Even if concertgoers were unaware of her history as a battered girlfriend, Rihanna provided a show that was psychologically complex without appearing self-pitying or even kind of crass. Instead, the rich visuals gave her hits dimension and they also gave their singer a free pass from having to address anything directly.
This is Rihanna’s first headlining stadium tour and she is stepping up at a time when many female pop singers, Lady Gaga in particular, are presenting a cold sexuality and are purposely ambiguous about their own narrative. Instead of a person, all you get is self-help jingoism and a slavish dedication to the brand.
Rihanna’s thigh-high boots and black unitard moves her in the direction of that company, but it turned out to be more of a fashion statement. She allowed herself to be vulnerable, off-script and, when bashing that wrecked car with a baseball bat during “Shut Up and Drive,” enjoy a healthy dose of dumb fun.
There was also plenty of posing — strapped with guitar during “Rockstar 101” and, as Sheila E in a brief cover of “The Glamorous Life,” a workout on the drums. But even these moves became playfully transparent as she didn’t mask that her band was doing all the heavy lifting.
She was as relatable as a pop star gets. The music veered from the hard mechanicals of modern R&B to dance-pop (“Disturbia”), ballads (“Unfaithful”), reggae (“Rude Boy”) and pop (“Live Your Life”). “Run This Town,” the Jay-Z hit to which she provides vocals, was performed late into the set, but after a night in which she clearly stood on her own, it felt like an afterthought.
Professional guitar shredder Nuno Bettencourt of the 1980s hair band Extreme was there to inflect hyperactive solos at certain key moments, but on songs like “Let Me” and “SOS,” they sounded like jolts of white noise.
The 90-minute show is the final date on her tour, which may have contributed to the loose, almost carefree mood. Which included an onstage marriage proposal by one of her dancers to his girlfriend, seated in the audience but invited onstage. All’s well that ends well, but in this case, it also lent the possibility of several new beginnings.