I don't wonder about Rihanna. At least I hadn't before this trip. Prior to attending the 777 tour, Rihanna had for me, simply existed. She'd done so, of course, in an exponentially more favored and pressured reality than anyone whose song lyrics aren't tattooed on people they've never met, but she wasn't someone I could remember discussing as often as say, Beyonce; which is strange because she is infinitely more interesting by design.
Robyn Rihanna Fenty, whose first and last name I first heard back in '08 from long since disgraced Harlem rapper Charles Hamilton as he so coyly replied to a question about a celebrity crush, has actually lived out the girl-in-front-of-a-beauty-mirror singing into her hair brush, pop star fantasy. She was just a schoolgirl in Barbados when she sang for Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers, vacationing producers who fell so instantly in love with her that they invited her to live in their home in upstate New York and record demos and then used their music industry connections to pitch her as the greatest thing since Britney Spears. Jay-Z, who'd been appointed president and CEO of Def Jam just a year prior, agreed and she's been Def Jam's iPhone ever since, improving every year with every edition, for each of her past six albums.
The 777 Tour, unprecedented as far as music promotion goes, was supposed to be a celebration of her longevity and the roll out for Unapologetic, her 7th album and first Billboard number one. Three hundred passengers including “journalists from over 80 countries,” a handful of super fans and contest winners, Island Def Jam staffers and execs, a documentary production crew and her band—along with her normal, quality-of-life entourage—packed onto a Boeing 777 for a stretch of country hopping that played out like The Amazing Race, except the only mission was to procure coverage, and everyone lost at every stop.
Almost as omnipresent as journalists' continued cries for help via Twitter and various recaps of the trip's torturous travails published in real time, were rebuttals from readers keeping up with the trip calling the attendees out as entitled whiners. This is unfair. No one came on the trip to befriend Rihanna. Actually, it's possible that everyone came on the trip hoping to befriend Rihanna, but realistically, a lot of people were promised access to her process and thought, more reasonably, they'd have some time to enjoy some of the locales. Neither of these occurred.
The first time I saw Rihanna in person was from seat 39G, a right aisle seat about halfway to the back of the plane (and the one I would retain for the duration of the trip). At this point, we had yet to take off from LA for the first show in Mexico City, and she'd wriggled herself into the midsection of the plane—the coach seats, just beyond the fully-reclining seat-beds of her bandmates and handlers—to shake hands and kiss babies. I had on sunglasses as I was well hung-over from a night spent in Hollywood's Supper Club where I watched injured Bulls guard Derrick Rose hobble around in golden Louboutin sneakers and a topless trapeze artist descend a small hole in the club's ceiling to deliver bottles of champagne to patrons who looked anything but worried about getting up that next morning. I know I wasn't, but I certainly could've been considering our 8:30 AM lobby call. I removed my sunglasses to witness an ambush, bodies flinging themselves toward Rihanna, cell phone camera wielding arms outstretched, as if drawn in by some force larger than their own adulation. For dignity's sake we'll call it professional obligation.
She inched up the left aisle, carrying Armand de Brignac champagne, known less-formally as “Ace of Spades,” the same gold-skinned bottle I saw hand delivered just a few hours earlier in the Supper Club. Behind her is one of Rihanna's assistants (I will later learn is named Jen), toting D'Usse, Jay-Z's foray into cognac. Rihanna has champagne but offers, “If you're going through something, you can have some cognac.” I was going through something, but it's called glee. I was on a privately chartered plane with Rihanna and she's hand-pouring champagne for the passengers. I try the D'Usse. I’d had champagne poured for me by a gracious flight attendant, when I first boarded after I saw an open bottle and asked for some.
Rihanna gets to my side of the plane rather quickly, which is surprising. Firstly, she was supposed to be meeting and/or greeting passengers, of which there are literally hundreds. But secondly, the majority of said passengers, aside from a handful of superfans selected to attend through various contests, are far too concerned with gathering content for their outlets than drinking free champagne and hanging out with Rihanna. From the moment she arrives she is swarmed, people shouting her name and anything they can to get her attention, seemingly for sport. “Can I have a diamond?!” someone asks, referencing her latest single. If only they'd searched the gift bag left conveniently on every seat on the plane, they'd have seen a thin plastic baggie with a black stringed bracelet inside and a tiny diamond attached. Rihanna would go on announce its presence over the plane's intercom, lest anyone think it was a worthless piece of string. “Now you can never say no one never gave you a diamond!” she says.
The gift bags, black mesh canvas totes with 777 insignia also included a travel grooming kit, a bottle of Rihanna's signature “Nude” perfume, Roc Nation headphones and a pair of Unapologetic socks printed all over with an image of the album cover. I'd nearly drunk myself back to proper cognitive function by the time Rihanna was close enough for me to pull her arm like she was a girl walking by me in the club, but I didn't. She pauses her march just as she is passing my seat to ham it up for one of the cameras in tow, presumably the one filming her documentary, and makes a joke about a gangly English journalist being the life of the party, before Jen pours D'Usse directly into his mouth like he's a young co-ed on spring break in Cancun.
Rihanna has the glow of pampering and opulence but her giant head is just as striking in person as her beautifully long legs. Between the oversized, cat eye sunglasses that cover her face and her caravan of gawkers close behind, I wouldn't say I got much of her essence, but the tiny handgun tattooed under her armpit looks pretty cool up close. Now if this were, in fact, a “flying party,” as the welcome message in our official 777 tour information booklets led us to believe (Rihanna calling it, “My rock & roll fantasy),” between all the camera phone recording and shameless badgering, it was not likely a party she would have stayed at. So she didn't, sequestering herself in the plane's Rihanna quarters, way in the front by the cockpit. Her Great Gatsby-like absence made sense. Imagine inviting some 300 people to your house (albeit a temporary, flying house in this instance) and instead of drinking or likewise enjoying the privilege, they hover as if you are Moses returned, waiting for you to deliver another set of commandments. Soon after she'd disappear, her voice could be heard breaking from the intercom: “Who's ready for Meh-jiicooo? Who's ready for Tequilaaaaaa?” The response was surprisingly limp. By the time we're clear for takeoff most of the reporters had begun drafting their first dispatch. I drank some more champagne and fell asleep.
In Mexico, we're processed through customs surprisingly quickly and board a caravan of coach buses to El Plaza Condesa, a standing room theater that holds just under 2000 people. The outside of the venue looks the same as any concert anywhere: vendors selling bootleg Rihanna tees, kids without tickets waiting around aimlessly. We're ushered inside by Adam Eisenberg, an athletic-looking man with sad eyes who is Island Def Jam's Director of Artist Development. Rihanna would blame the 90 minute showtime delay on the luggage containing her wardrobe, but her Mexican constituents cared not for her excuses and even less for her opening act, DJ Congorock, whose extended set of electro edits is met with cold stares and still bodies. All is forgiven though when the shredding of Nuno Betancourt, Rihanna lead guitarist, and member of '80s/'90s band Extreme, thunders through El Plaza introing “Cockiness.” Rihanna looks appropriately bossy, slinking out in all black, denim shorts and a leather bralette peaking out from under a leather baseball jersey which she eventually comes half-way out of, tucking into the back of her waistline to wear like some kind of avant-garde, frontless skirt. Of the 20-something songs she performs, most surprising to me was that I can name them all off the top of my head. I've never considered myself a Rihanna fan, but Rihanna hits are ubiquitous and she's had more in the past six years than I realized. That is, until I caught myself mouthing the lyrics to “Unfaithful” from a balcony in Mexico City.
During the show, Rihanna sips tequila delivered to her from offstage, peppers her banter with some Babel Fish-translator Spanish and dances effectively enough, until the rave-like climax of “We Found Love.” The crowd seemed satisfied but the show felt more like a dress rehearsal than a tour send off, the band refining their cues and Rihanna dropping her own voice out of the songs for way longer than you'd expect someone who is performing in front of an audience. In the lobby a Mexican couple asked me to take a picture for them. I agreed and reached for the camera. “No, of you,” they responded together. I stared at them silently. The man backed away to secure the frame and the woman attached herself to my side. I smiled hard and scurried away with some mixture of pride and embarrassment. Who did they think I was? Were they going to try to tell their friends they met Chris Brown?
Immediately after the show, we're back on the bus for a red-eye flight to Toronto. We end up delayed three hours because of an earthquake off the coast of Chiapas (about 500 miles south of Mexico City). While we stalled, I drank rum and interrogated my rowmates. Beside me in the center and window seats, were Kate Lucey, an editor at sugarscape.com, a youth-driven, pop-culture fan site that boasts a tab specifically for “Lads” (as in pictures of strapping young lads, not a directive for lads to click there), and Jamal “SB” Edwards, a young internet magnate with over 120K Twitter followers and rising, whose video-heavy site sbtv.co.uk is tagged as “The UK's leading Youth Broadcaster.” They don't know each other but get a long like old friends. SB is surprised how much I know about grime, which isn't much at all.
I'm exhausted by the time we reach Toronto. I haven't slept in one place for more than three hours and two of those three times were on a plane. I have on sunglasses to cover the puffiness of my eyes and do not remove them to watch a suspiciously cute encounter where Rihanna grabs a single bag from the baggage carousel and when prompted about why, responds cheerfully, “Cause it's my shit.”
We're straight to the venue again, Danforth Musical Hall, as we don't have a hotel until Stockholm, the third leg of the trip. The venue is a bit smaller than Mexico, the fans a bit younger and dressed much trendier (ripped jeans abound). I decide to watch the show at ground level to get a better feel of what the people are experiencing. On line for the bar I meet a girl named Mary who recognizes me from the plane. Mary is from Hamburg, Germany and won a contest to come on the trip, happily taking off work to do so. She is thin, blonde and somewhat striking, and tells me a story of befriending some other passengers until she caught them talking about her in French, one of five languages she knows conversationally. She reveals that her current mission is to find weed.
The Toronto set list is nearly identical to Mexico City, but much better executed. Rihanna is loose (or fully drunk) and is cursing a bunch, but looks to be having fun, which is the biggest difference between the shows. She has on grey culottes and is busting out of another white bralette. She gives away an HTC phone (one of the tour's sponsors) with “Toronto” embroidered on the back. “I don't even have this,” she tells the crowd. (She did the same thing in Mexico.) Before the show, the plane was abuzz with rumors of a Drake appearance but we've no such luck as the “What's My Name” co-author and one time Rihanna love interest is nowhere to be found. Back to the buses we all go for the first of our transatlantic flights.
The show was exciting enough that the high has not worn off by the time we get settled. Our takeoff is delayed once again, but rum continues to soften the wait. I discover that I've been stationed in some kind of UK journalism bunker, meeting in the rows in front of me, freelancer Michael Cragg, Sian Rowe of NME, Andrew Perry of The Telegraph (or the aforementioned D'Usse gargling, Andy) and Karen Edwards of UK tabloid, Heat Magazine. They are all very pleasant and well spoken. The flight is long enough to watch a movie, some episodes of Law & Order SVU, eat a meal, and slip in and out of a couple of fruitless naps.
After arriving in Stockholm we are finally awarded a hotel. It's luxurious in a futuristic way, so much so that turning on the lights proves confounding for more than a few of us. The shower is so invigorating that it seems like a privilege we've earned through good behavior. Aside from washing up, with about three hours to kill before our lobby call time, most people catch up on sleep or get food. The efficient managed both. I opted for neither, instead using the time to do pushups, talk on Gchat and catch up on World Star videos. I would come to regret the use of that time, while waiting hungrily outside the Stockholm venue, Berns Salonger, a hotel and performance center with a sex shop in the basement.
In the mild autumn air, the venue is within walking distance, but we ride the coach some five minutes to its entrance, a stylized glass enclosure with an actual red carpet running through it. While waiting to go in, I'm accosted by a bunch of attractive Swedish teens, of Nordic and East African heritage. They ask if I'm famous. One girl asks if I can marry her so she can come to the US. They tell me they don't hang out in that area (Berzelii Park) very much because it is racist. When I ask them how so, they say that it's not so much racist but that the business owners don't make them feel very welcomed. When it's time for me to go in one of the girls yells, "Get drunk and fuck bitches!" grinning.
The show in Stockholm is identical to previous ones (starting about two hours later than scheduled), save for the addition of “Stay,” a heart-wrenching ballad from Unapologetic, Rihanna performs as a part of an acoustic set that also includes “Unfaithful,” “Take A Bow” and “Hate That I Love You.” The energy of the crowd is by far the biggest difference between the earlier shows, Stockholm having come ready to party. There is an after party at the aforementioned sex shop with people dancing badly to grating techno and a conspicuously hairy, moderately fit bartender in a leather tank top and short shorts. I stick it out for a couple of hours chatting up an aspiring singer, a stylist, a highly intoxicated visual artist who tells me to Google him and a woman so statuesque and disinterested in the proceedings that she has to be either a model or a call girl, before I tap out to eat McDonald's and turn in for our 9AM lobby call.
When we're finished boarding for Paris, whispers begin that Rihanna has just woken up, in her hotel room. We leave about three hours later than scheduled and after waiting over an hour for baggage once we've arrived, a trip that should have taken about three hours, is closing in on 10. By the time we reach the hotel, there is roughly an hour before lobby call, most choosing to shower or eat. I manage both by showering immediately and running to the lobby to meet with some US journalists for dinner at the closest, fastest option we have, a buffet directly across the street. The food is decent but the bill is a cringe-inducing 35 euros a person. We hustle back to the buses minutes before departure.
We're told the venue tonight has a hard curfew of 10:30PM so Rihanna will have to meet her nine o'clock start time if she doesn't want her set cut short. She doesn't and it is. The show begins half an hour late, Rihanna forced to cut the acoustic portion altogether. Her performance comes across wonky and unfocussed. The crowd adores her. Just after the show though, we are whisked away to the VIP Room, a franchise club with branches in St. Tropez, Monaco and Dubai. The club is nearly empty when we arrive, but as it fills we're shepherded from its first floor dance area to an upstairs balcony where a lone bartender, claiming to be in his first day of employment, stressfully concocts every and anything you can make with well vodka, compliments of the 777 tour.
We are told Rihanna is, in fact, coming, so we wait and drink and alternate between the two for some hours until sometime around three when she arrives with an entourage of Diddy, Cassie, Pharell, Akon and Omarion. Rihanna's group procures a VIP section and is cordoned off behind a wall of security. Upon her entry the DJ halts his ongoing electro assault to play Rihanna songs, and just as quickly she requests that he not play her music. Shortly thereafter, Diddy grabs the mic to announce that Rihanna requests “hip hop only, for the rest of the night,” a statement he repeats twice to make himself clear, and voilà, we are dancing with the stars. Or dancing near them, perhaps, as Rihanna doesn't really interact with anyone outside of VIP. One of the plane passengers, a contest winner from Sweden who'd earlier in the evening spoken at length with Rihanna's manager Jay Brown, claims to have been punched in the face by one of the bouncers after trying to approach her.
Before we leave Paris, we wait on the plane, the same way we did before leaving Stockholm, and Toronto before that. Our call times, no doubt declared in the interest of transporting 300 people and their belongings at once, seem reasonable within the itinerary, but considerably less so when we're made to spend time we would have used for sleeping or recuperating, waiting for someone who is sleeping or recuperating.
We land in Berlin at twilight, continuing an unfortunate streak of four days passed without sunlight. We go straight to the venue, an ex-power plant called E-Werk, where we hole up for hours like storm refugees. Rumors of Rihanna's distractions began to rear their ugly head. “I heard she smokes 10 blunts a day and is just too high to keep her schedule,” someone on line for food says. “I think she's been meeting up with Chris Brown in every city,” says another. The Rihanna contest winners, tucked into the very back of the plane from the beginning, feel especially neglected and as such, are livid. One, whose luggage was reported to have been lost, demands a flight home early, though she ultimately sees the trip through.
I spend most of the time within the Berlin compound pinballing restlessly between a table of US journalists huddled over their laptops, a slowly diminishing craft services table and the actual performance space, a dancehall in an adjacent building. By the time I settled in with the crowd, about an hour and a half after the show's scheduled start time, fans were calling for Rihanna's head. "Get your fucking ass onstage!" shouted one girl repeatedly. “You ever heard of a watch!?!” She began a piercing rendition of “Diamond,” before bounding off toward the bar for more beer.
When she finally comes onstage, Rihanna is wearing a weed leaf tanktop. The jokes it encites regarding her tardiness are unending. Her performance is all over the place. During “Round of Applause” she sounds grainy and sluggish, but the energy of “Where Have You Been” has her heckler two-finger whistling for more. “I don't wanna do this anymore,” Rihanna belts on “Unfaithful.” “Neither do we,” a colleague replies.
The delirium reaches a euphoric head on the flight from Berlin to London when the passengers, overmedicated by the nimble wrists of the flight attendants' generous cocktail pours, start feudal chants, yelling, among other things, “Save our jobs!” and “Just one quote!” I joined in on them all, even the ones I couldn't quite understand. If Rihanna could hear anything, it's likely she'd held a pillow over her ears the way you do when your roommate is having boisterous sex in the next room. Sensing someone, if not Rihanna herself would address the melee, people fired up their cameras only to end up filming each other's antsy confusion. And then an Australian radio personality named Tim Dormer lept stark naked from the bathroom and ran a scrambling Fred Flintstone-like lap through the aisles to the delight of everyone not driving the plane. The high subsides, the fervor dies out, and everyone is quiet upon landing.
We have a full day in London, the majority of which most people used to sleep. We check into the The Grosvenor House of Park Lane around noon and the breakfast there is by and far the best meal of the trip. I went to sleep immediately after eating, waking up some two hours later to deliver my bag to the lobby to be sent to the plane. I spent some of the afternoon sulking indecisively until I left the hotel to see what I could of London. I walked Oxford Street, which is like a more reasonable Times Square, equal parts chain stores and tourist trinkets. I listened to Dom Kennedy's Yellow Album and felt lonely. I hadn't gotten much of a chance to speak with friends or family since we left, and alone in London, I felt especially disconnected. I started to think about how proud everyone I knew was that I was on this trip and how much of a privilege it was. And then how altogether exhausting and boring most of it had been, and the best way to downplay that to my family so as not to sound ungrateful. I was plucked from my tailspin by Mary H.K. Choi, a friend and editor at MTV Style, who spun me around as I was walking back into the hotel, allowing me to accompany her to Topshop at Oxford Circus. She watched me mull over some shirts and we met up with Maud Deitch, also of MTV Style and Soo-Young Kim of Complex, who had nail appointments at Wah Nails. They looked happy and rejuvenated.
Back at the hotel, Gabe Tesoriero, Def Jam SVP of Artist and Media Relations, who acted as a kind of overseer to this entire operation, emailed that he “had a tab at the bar,” a gesture of goodwill from maybe the last person who needed to offer one. Tesoriero is renowned in the music industry for two things mainly, being a gatekeeper to Def Jam's largest acts and for being difficult to get in touch with. On this trip, though, he was amicable and did his very best to soften blows he couldn't possibly have seen coming. It made me sad to see him looking worn down, gripping his Old Fashioned like it was antidote.
After drinks, we boarded coaches for London's Kentish Town's HMV, the largest and most exciting venue yet. It's only about 9PM, but there is a feeling of escape in the air, attitudes lightened by our impending return to the States early the next morning. The show begins roughly an hour late, but the crowd is electric, and their energy isn't lost on 777 passengers. “Say HTC!” Rihanna shouts during the requisite phone giveaway. “Say Budweiser! Say River Island!” The audience parrots dutifully. “None of this would be possible without them,” she says. She looks happy until she looks furious.
“She started signing too early!” Soo-Young gasps. During “Where Have You Been,” Rihanna jumps the backing track's cue and the band follows her lead, creating a two-layered, cacophonous mess. She turns her back to the audience and glaring at the DJ, swipes her hand in front of her throat. “What the fuck was that?” she asks when the beat drops. You could have heard a pin drop. “This is the kind of rock and roll bullshit we're doing on tour when we haven't had time to rehearse,” she offers the audience. “Start it over.” They get through “Where Have You Been” and the rest of the set relatively unscathed. There is an after party, but it is in the lobby of the venue, and Rihanna does not come. The 777 passengers in fact, could barely be made to stick around and most head for the bus after a drink.
The third and final time I saw Rihanna in person, I was a body or two back from going through Stansted Airport security. A very motherly airport worker halted the line to warn us that Rihanna is ready to board and begs our patience so she can be processed. Rihanna appears suddenly in a glowing green, black and red bomber coat, trailed by a legion of whoevers, faces I did and did not recognize, all dressed head to toe in black. As she floated toward us, exposed to only the 20 or so passengers not bent around a corner further, she held her right pointer finger to her lips, mouthing an elongated Shhhhhhhhhhhh. This read most clearly to me as, You may not talk to me.
And so we waited, again. By the time I got through security, I'd be halted twice, once because my travel liquids weren't in a Ziploc bag (the first time this had been an issue all trip) and then, again, because I was carrying the unopened bottle of perfume Rihanna gave us in the tour's gift bag. I'd intended to give it away once I got home but the idea lost some of its luster watching the security worker tear open the packaging to run it through the X-Ray machine a second time. He placed the bottle in a large Ziploc bag, one in which it still did not fit, and offered it back to me. “Keep it,” I told him. It wasn't worth the trouble.