On Wednesday night, just before slipping into the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, a trio of excitable teen Rihanna fans decided to take a selfie. The one in the middle was charged with taking the photo. It was unclear exactly how—in what manner, and who, got cut out—but she fucked up, epically. And I know this because her friend, upon seeing the mangled selfie, turned to her and said, “Now see this is why Metro doesn’t trust you.”
These days, arena shows (especially on their second night in town) can feel preemptively deflated: your friends and the internet have, most likely, possibly against your will, already shown you every last cool little bit. But there are things that can’t be spoiled about pop spectacle, no matter how hard everyone tries. There are ambient elements you are coming to hear and see that you didn’t even necessarily know you were coming to hear and see.
Sometimes it’s celebrated stage and screen actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, at whom I was gawking so hard that I then promptly tripped over a dude’s Jordan Concords and spilled his beer. Sometimes it’s an endless line of presumed models being shown to their seats, and fussily tended to, by a very small man with very good bone structure. Sometimes, it's an audible, inventive, devastatingly effective utilization of a meme by a teen.
The show itself was also a fount of those weird little things. There were dancers effectively dressed like the Rubber Man from the first season of American Horror Story, and dancers effectively costumed like the dude from Timecrimes. Mid-show, a giant, multipart embryonic sac inflated, and was summarily internally lit with purples and yellows. Later, what was more or less a giant shower curtain unspooled. Which was good, because then a foam party started melting from up top.
Rihanna’s already been on the ANTI tour now for a couple of weeks, and she has many months more ahead. From go, she seemed quite happy to settle into a groove. It’s not that she was holding back, necessarily, or conserving energy. I don’t imagine there’ll be a show on this tour where she’ll go really nuts. This is the default vibe: relaxed. In one section, the smashes—a bunch of her various big-time guest appearances and big songs—were strung together breathlessly, and it was almost like a junior punk band vibe: let’s hit the bangers, back to back to back to back; let’s give ‘em what we got and get out of here. No highs, no lows. Not much time to think.
In a cover story for April's Vogue, Rihanna tried to get at the mentality that has led to the wonderful left-turn of ANTI. “Settling makes you feel like a sellout,” she said. “It makes you feel like a liar. It doesn’t make you feel like you believe anything you’re saying or singing or performing…I always believed that when you follow your heart or your gut…you can never lose.”
To say she “always” thought like this seems disingenuous at best, actively disrespectful of us at worst. Over her famed seven-albums-in-seven-years run, Rihanna was a model pop-star citizen, as far as the record label was concerned: she worked with the top songwriting mercenaries and so calculatingly, year after year, she churned out the hits.
But even if we didn’t quite get it in her music until ANTI, she has long been an artist with fiercely held opinions.
Later in the Vogue article, she talks of the famous see-through dress she wore while at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards in 2014. Specifically, she talks about her decision to not really wear underwear. And here you see it: the exacting vision.
“I just liked it better without the lines underneath,” she says. “Could you imagine the CFDA dress with a bra? I would slice my throat. I already wanted to, for wearing a thong that wasn’t bedazzled. That’s the only regret I have in my life.”
The interviewer asks, Wearing a thong that wasn’t bedazzled is your greatest regret in life?
“To the CFDA Awards. Yes.”
In person at Barclays, Rihanna let us in a bit more. She talked about spending summers in Brooklyn growing up, about her time on Flatbush Avenue, at Kings Plaza, at the populist department stores Rainbows and Cookies. If it was pandering, it was done well: the crowd shrieked in recognition. But she didn’t seem like she was trying all that hard to make them do it. She was just kind of chatting.
Rihanna doesn’t have to try too hard, ever. In fact, we prefer it that way. There she is, calm, content, happily even-keeled. And there we are, screaming back. It feels right.
“Anybody got a little flashlight thing on their phone?” she asked at one point.
“Yes, bitch, you know we do!” the woman behind me yelled.
“Put this shit on YouTube,” she followed.
And, dutifully, the woman yelped once again: “Yes, bitch!”