What is Rihanna? Statistically speaking, she’s one of the biggest-selling female artists of all time. A superstar. But even after two hours in her company at this slick stadium performance, I still never got a sense of who she is or what she wants to communicate.
Rihanna | Hampden Park, Glasgow | Rating ***
Of course, some entertainers don’t have to communicate anything beyond entertainment for its own sake. But Rihanna, despite being an evidently talented singer, isn’t an especially distinctive performer.
For all her armour of irony, someone like Madonna can connect with an audience of thousands with the sheer force of her charisma. Whatever personality Rihanna may possess is stifled beneath a strictly choreographed battery of aggressively mechanical R&B. Only on dancefloor bangers such as Umbrella and the power ballad likes of Diamonds does she escape from the machine.
Towards the end, she was finally given a chance to show off her vocal range on two heartfelt soul ballads. Tellingly, she described them as personal favourites from her own catalogue. Otherwise, she struggled to stamp her DNA on music that often seems hell-bent on being stripped of human emotion.
Nevertheless, this current tour, mounted in support of her new hit album, ANTi, contains several striking contours. The first quarter of the show – which is divided into four acts – deliberately avoids the usual bells and whistles demands of enormo-gig pop with some overwhelmingly stark, white production design (replete with what appear to be huge inflatable pupae).
It’s boldly subdued to begin with, a monument of ice, as she wrong-foots her adoring crowd with a brace of austere ballads, before gradually building towards a more dynamic assault. Her more ominous “jams”, for all their lack of memorable hooks, sound like a city-destroying march of gigantic, booty-shaking robots. They’re far more powerful live than on record.
This dramatic minimalism is compounded by a compact backing band. Their only concession to arena flash are two thunderous drummers – take that, Showaddywaddy – and the occasional flurry of unwelcome rock guitar.
The lighting became warmer as the music grew wilder with a hits medley – Live Your Life/All of the Lights/Run This Town/Umbrella – followed by a winningly camp interlude during which, dressed a la Eartha Kitt in glittery black chiffon and flanked by male dancers in literal cat-suits, she was clearly having fun.
More entertainment on this knowing scale wouldn’t have gone amiss.