Rihanna is a drama queen. And that's fine.
More than any female artist since Madonna in her Sex prime (that's NOT to say the now-older Madonna can't be in any prime at present, just that her newer material stinks), Rihanna has turned skin, sensuality and seduction into theater.
Bouncing back-and-forth from dominatrix to waif, from zipless aggressor to detached femme-fatale to tender quarry, the 28-year-old seems to toy with her own mythology for sport and profit. The drama of her life beyond music is what drives RiRi's spectacular ANTI tour, which brought her to the Wells Fargo Center Sunday night.
Looks-wise, Rihanna's long black hair shone bright against her outfits' surprisingly neutral color palette and textures (as opposed to past tours where leathers and vinyls ruled the day). Vocally, she mostly moved beyond the cool hauteur of the past into heated emotions and jazzy runs. The souped-up, synth-y arrangements may have pushed blocks of tunes (what supposedly sets her acts apart) into a similar, indistinguishable tone, but Rihanna ruled, recognizably, atop the globby sound.
Starting on the far side of the room, Rihanna entered from the sports center's floor, hopped atop a makeshift tent/stage and began the slow-and-steady, piano-based process of the heart swollen "Stay" and "Love the Way You Lie (Part II)" in a strong, metronomic voice.
Moving the action to a clear, catwalk that floated atop the audience, Rihanna went for a half-voguer/half-stripper routine in midair during "Woo" and "Sex with Me." Commanding and sexual while maintaining vulnerability, these moments of Rihanna alone - before she hit the main stage - were exquisite and powerful.
Once greeted by hard-body lockers, poppers and band, she paced the length of the clear, white stage for the sinister, throbbing likes of "Numb," "B***h Better Have My Money" and the computer game-noisy "Pose." For all their cocky lyrical command, the muddled arrangements made Rihanna sound off her game, even if vocally she was in swaggering pugnacious mode. Even the pulsating "Desperado" and "Umbrella" got stuck in that murk.
By the hyper-ska of "Rude Boy" and the crude-electro of "Work" however, Rihanna and the sound had made friends in synth heaven - a vibe that lasted through the spare groove of Drake's "Take Care."
Rihanna and Company turned the Wells Fargo into a house music party with the vocoder-heavy "Needed Me," a phase-shifting cover of Tame Impala's "Same Ol' Mistakes" and the shimmering "Diamonds," as soapy bubbles filled the stage behind her. Still, she saved the best for last, improvising a dozen soulful riffs through the acoustic, psychedelic "FourFiveSeconds" and the electro-gospel bluesy "Love on the Brain."