Rihanna is one of the few pop artists who has seemingly mastered multi-platform superstardom in our digital, social media-driven world.
Since her debut more than 10 years ago, Rihanna has retained a high level of visibility in pop culture that would have long veered into overexposure if she weren't such an enigma.
Maintaining such mystery is a bit remarkable considering she’s issued eight albums over her career (her latest, “Anti,” arrived by surprise in January) and amassed more No. 1 hits than Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.
Rihanna knows how to give so much of herself to fans, be it through provocative music videos, fashion magazine covers, tabloid headlines and a busy Instagram feed — without ever quite revealing everything.
That mystique was on full display during the 28-year-old pop star’s sold-out concert Tuesday night in Inglewood at the Forum, the first of two shows here in support of “Anti.”
Rihanna began the show on a white, retractable cube at the back of the arena, opening with the sullen ballads “Stay” and “Love the Way You Lie (Part II)” while draped in a hooded white cloak.
After that flash of vulnerability she paused before the next song as the arena erupted. (Whether the delay was a real moment of the singer appreciating, or perhaps being overcome by, the applause or pulling from some well-worn rock star performance tricks is anyone’s guess.)
Rihanna channeled a sexier persona as she ascended a plexiglass catwalk over the audience as she strutted to “Woo,” a dark, woozy jam co-produced by rapper and tour opening act Travis Scott (the two have been romantically linked, but Rihanna’s love life has been a point of tabloid speculation for years since her tumultuous relationship with Chris Brown).
That moment briefly turned her from a pop star into a living embodiment of an Instagram account, with thousands of camera phones below taking pictures of her every angle as she sang about how amazing sex with her would be.
And this is before she was delivered to a platform and joined by a gaggle of dancers for a funkier version of her club jam “Birthday Cake.”
The stage was minimalist, at least by pop spectacle standards. Her image occasionally bounced off a mirrored wall while at other times psychedelic swirls swallowed her and the audience, and oversized plastic orbs at times inflated and pulsed with technicolor.
Over the course of the show's 90 minutes Rihanna largely overlooked her early work in favor of more cohesive bodies of work such as 2012’s “Unapologetic” and 2011’s “Talk That Talk” — albums that capped years of blockbuster singles.
Until “Anti,” Rihanna seemed defined by her hit output. And she worked hard to eschew that image, even if it resulted in a show that at times felt rushed.
A medley of her hits with other rappers (T.I.’s “Live Your Life,” Jay Z’s “Run This Town” and Kanye West’s “All of the Lights”) came early, but felt unnecessary given her own lengthy catalog. She’s one of a few performers today who can bury a defining hit such as “Umbrella” until roughly a third of the way into a show and the only one who could cut a record with a Beatle and leave it off their album (last year's Paul McCartney assisted "FourFiveSeconds," performed late in the set).
Rihanna was at her best when she pulled from “Anti,” her most adventurous record.
The album’s warm, vibe-heavy numbers were among the night's highlights, and she saved the most vulnerable offerings for the end: “Needed Me,” her lush Tame Impala cover “Same Ol Mistakes” and the synth-rock ballad “Kiss It Better.”
These were all songs that asked the most of her vocal prowess — and emotional capabilities — and it felt like no coincidence that she performed them while hidden behind oversized sunglasses and a brown suit.
It was a reminder of the protected persona she’s created, one that seems so revealing while she never fully shows herself.