Out with the gold, in with the bold.
Less than a week after Jay Z and Beyoncé vacated the premises, Eminem and Rihanna moved into the Rose Bowl on Thursday night for the first of two concerts to launch their shared Monster Tour. It’s the summer’s other road show pairing a superstar rapper with a superstar singer, and like the Carters’ On the Run trek it took full advantage of the stadium setting, with fireworks, a powerful live band and stories-tall video screens that flashed elaborate filmed sequences.
But where Jay Z and Beyoncé used their gigs to burnish their joint reputation as music’s royal couple, Eminem and Rihanna roamed the Rose Bowl’s enormous stage as dogged troublemakers, rousing the rabble over which Mr. and Mrs. Carter coolly rule.
“Can’t tell me nothing,” Rihanna declared in the show’s opener, “Numb”; minutes later, Eminem was growling his way through “Won’t Back Down.” Anyone keeping track of how many times each of them claimed not to give a damn (or something like it) would’ve quickly lost count.
Which didn’t mean the two artists incited the enormous crowd in the same way. Performing together and separately over the course of the show – a nearly three-hour production set to travel from Pasadena to the New York City area before concluding in Eminem’s hometown of Detroit – the singer and rapper channeled dramatically different energies as they moved through songs that covered just as much stylistic ground.
Rihanna was pure bad-seed swagger in “Phresh Out the Runway” and “Birthday Cake,” dark R&B tracks buzzing with serrated synth lines set over beats you could feel in your chest. “Rockstar 101” added squalling riffs from her guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, of the hair-metal band Extreme. And for “Rude Boy” and “Man Down,” she rode springy Caribbean rhythms that pulled from her childhood in Barbados.
Throughout much of her main solo set, the singer, wearing baggy pants and a jacket emblazoned with flames, was surrounded by a crew of dancers doing tightly choreographed moves – the same setup employed by any number of other female pop stars.
But as often as Rihanna joined them, she stood apart, allowing her scowl to speak for itself; she let her backup vocalists carry a similar load at points, as in the chorus of “Where Have You Been.” In a smaller venue, the effect might’ve been stultifying, but here it was thrilling, a kind of sermon on rejection.
Eminem, in contrast, attacked his songs with old-fashioned ferocity, bearing down on the music as though he could extrude its adrenaline and pass it on to his fans. Built on a sample of Billy Squier’s “The Stroke,” “Berzerk” surged with rap-rock intensity, while “Kill You” delivered a stream of violent threats only made more menacing by the tune’s bouncy groove.
After zooming through an absurdly fast double-time verse in “Rap God,” the MC’s shoulders slumped as he sucked in air; he seemed physically spent, as though he needed a break. But Eminem didn’t take one. Instead he launched into a pair of songs with unprintable titles and then did “Criminal,” about how no one can stop him.
For all the differences in the ways they embodied a sense of defiance, Eminem and Rihanna were united Thursday by a shared maudlin streak, a weakness for melodrama that cut against the misanthropy. It was there in her “Stay,” a stripped-down ballad in which she showed the frayed edges of her voice, and his “Not Afraid,” which he dedicated to “anyone who’s ever lost someone to addiction.” (The morbid anthem came from his 2010 album “Recovery,” inspired by Eminem’s struggle with prescription drug abuse.)
And the big emotions bridged the gap separating the two in the songs they performed together, such as “Stan,” where Rihanna sang Dido’s reassuring vocal hook, and “Love the Way You Lie,” their hit duet about a destructive romance.
The first date of the Monster Tour ended, of course, with “The Monster,” Eminem and Rihanna’s meditation on a different toxic relationship: the one between a celebrity and his or her renown. It was adding to the idea that these two can see through hero worship – and that they want you to see through it too.
Then again, the song climaxed with a showstopping display of pyrotechnics, proof that even rebels crave a little shine.
Twitter: @mikaelwoodCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times