Rihanna might not be the best singer or the best dancer, but she is pretty exceptional at being a pop star. She represents expertly produced songs that both reflect and anticipate top-40 trends by balancing her outsized (if sometimes oppressive) sexuality with the sort of aw-shucks humility that manifests itself in shy smiles after particularly successful performances. Her social-media presence only magnifies this duality; pictures of inspirational quotes sit side-by-side with shots of her partying into the wee hours on her Instagram feed.
In 2007, the Barbadian singer released the megasmash album “Good Girl Gone Bad,” and the songs she's released since then — particularly on the albums that, since 2009, have come out so reliably to have served as a way to let pop fans know that it's November — have taken that idea and run with it. (Her most recent album was called “Unapologetic,” if you want to get an idea of how she's dealt with the slings and arrows from the media and the Twitterati.)
That canny combination of sex and love, happiness and misery, and the sacred and the profane has resulted in her amassing a metric ton of hits over the course of her short career, and Sunday at the Prudential Center in Newark she careened through about 30 of them. The show opened with her clad in a black habit, singing the mournful "Mother Mary" in front of a pair of statues — an opening tinged with just enough religion to recall her pop provocateur ancestor Madonna. From there, she went into a sex-drenched set, performing demi-entendre tracks like "Cockiness" as she nonchalantly led the audience's eyes to her crotch.
The show was made up of five mini-sets with rough themes that, taken as a whole, represent Rihanna's most defining qualities in 2013: carnal exploration ("Birthday Cake," "Pour It Up"); Caribbean-inflected music (the lilting "What's My Name?,” the grim "Man Down"); stadium-sized bombast ("Umbrella," "Rockstar 101"); balladry ("Loveeeeeee Song," "Hate That I Love You"); and, finally, Rihanna's greatest hits ("We found Love," "Don't Stop The Music"). This pacing made for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it evening, although Rihanna's clear glee at being the night's ringleader certainly helped; even the lulls between sets held the crowd's interest thanks to that old arena-rock saw, the guitar solo. (Credit guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, formerly of the hard-funk outfit Extreme, with that; his presence introduced another duality, pitting the dancepop that Rihanna has pumped out lately against the slightly shopworn genre of rock, and somehow modernizing both in the process.)
"Stay" and "Diamonds," both from “Unapologetic,” closed out the night, and while those picks made sense on an album-promotion level, the encore had a somewhat odd feel to it; one is a lovely, wistful ballad, while the other has a boot-camp deliberateness to it. Neither is really the sort of triumphant track to take a final bow upon. But the crowd ate it up, and Rihanna seemed satisfied as well; she called the audience "impeccable" right before going into the night's final song, and you could tell that she was really grateful because she accentuated that praise with one of the English language's more famous unprintable modifiers.
(Rihanna returns to the area May 4-5 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.)
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SETLIST: Mother Mary/Phresh Out The Runway/Birthday Cake/ Talk That Talk/Pour It Up/Cockiness (Love It)/Numb/(intermission)/You Da One/Man Down/No Love Allowed/Rude Boy/What's My Name?/(intermission)/Jump/Umbrella/All Of The Lights-Rockstar 101/What Now/(intermission)/Loveeeeeee Song/Love The Way You Lie-Take A Bow-Cold Case Love/Hate That I Love You/(intermission)/We Found Love/S&M/Only Girl (In The World)/Don't Stop The Music/Where Have You Been /// ENCORES: Stay/Diamonds