Rihanna is the biggest hitmaker in music today, but hits alone do not a live performer make, the pop queen proved during her surprisingly dull tour stop at Joe Louis Arena on Thursday night.
A sold-out crowd of 15,400 was on hand for the 100-minute show, which saw Rihanna crank through 30 songs, almost all of them hits. But the show seemed oddly directionless, with songs loosely grouped together by themes (raunchy songs, ballads, club anthems) and with little attention paid to their visual presentation. Rihanna's previous tours were more realized, both visually and thematically, but Thursday's show was a step back for the singer. The overworked 25-year-old — November's "Unapologetic" album was her fourth album in four years — looks like she could use a break.
The show's opening suite of sex jams — including "Birthday Cake," "Talk That Talk" and "Cockiness" — allowed for Rihanna to grab, rub and pat her private areas, but likely didn't titillate the audience in any way. Someone like Madonna is able to convey naughtiness, danger and sexuality on stage through a mix of performance and production, but Rihanna seemed bored, simply going through the motions. She looked lost on a stage that was too wide and too deep, with not enough going on to justify its square footage. Even with her four-piece band, two backup singers and eight dancers, the stage seemed bare, or maybe it simply exposed Rihanna's lack of performance chops. Either way, the show dragged through its first third.
Things picked up later during "Jump," a dubstep-fueled song from "Unapologetic" that interpolates portions of Ginuwine's "Pony," which was accompanied by large bursts of flames. That transitioned into "Umbrella," "All of the Lights" and eventually "Rockstar 101," with Rihanna convincingly playing the rock star role, kneeling at the foot of the stage and banging her head. She interacted with her band — including Extreme's Nuno Bettencourt, her guitarist of several years and one of the saving graces of her show — more in this section than in the others, and it paid off: She fed off their energy, and they helped take some of the weight of the show off of her shoulders. The propulsive "What About Now" wrapped the section, and it was the night's highlight, with Rihanna heavily emoting while the band shredded and the production swirled around her.
Things slowed down afterward, with Rihanna performing "Loveeeeeee Song" inside a spinning contraption that looked like the Glam Cam 360, E!'s awards show mainstay. Other ballads followed ("Love the Way You Lie (Part II)," "Take a Bow") and the energy didn't pick back up until she came back on stage for the amped up party song section of the show, including "We Found Love," "S&M" and "Only Girl (in the World)." She performed "Stay" on a riser during the encore and closed the evening with "Diamonds," the song for which the tour is named. But the show decidedly lacked in sparkle, and seemed mostly powered by indecision. You left learning nothing about Rihanna or her vision, or if she even has one, outside of several bold fashion choices.
There were plenty of hits, but not much fun.
Rihanna on stage at Joe Louis Arena for a concert in Detroit on Thursady / Darrel Ellis / The Detroit News
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