Rihanna’s two performances this weekend as the musical guest on the Anne Hathaway-hosted “Saturday Night Live” captured the alternating strengths and weaknesses that have plagued the singer’s nearly album-per-year career. Gone, thankfully, were the “Tron"-like setups that have ruined many of Rihanna’s TV performances over the last couple years, but her reliance on special effects reached more puzzling heights.
Rihanna is best when she pulls back, when all that really stands between singer and audience is her delicately imperfect voice. She rarely appears to be as confident a belter as some of her pop star peers, but what she lacks in vocal physicality she can make up for in dramatic interpretations.
The “SNL” setting for single “Diamonds,” however, made a camouflager-sporting Rihanna again a bit player in her own song. She was upstaged not by the song’s savvy production but by a stage-swarming green screen.
While the song’s official video strives for moody trippiness, the “SNL” graphics were puzzlingly upbeat and grotesquely out-of-date. Rihanna looked trapped in new age-fantasy film, and her bandmates disappeared into the dated digital creations, creating the odd sight of flying saucer peace signs floating across what looked to be a disembodied keyboardist.
Rihanna herself seemed removed from the whole affair. Her camo actually ensured that she didn’t dissolve into the long-lost PC game unfolding behind her, but with images of palm trees, a techno gladiator and all sorts of sea creatures swimming in the background, the focus was not on the artist or the song.
Better, and far more gripping, was the evening’s second performance, the stark ballad “Stay.” Although the Bob Marley billboard that was her dress seemed an odd choice, Rihanna kept things spare and simple.
There was little digital accompaniment here, as rhythms were brushed, a piano was mesmerizingly repetitive and tweaks of an electric guitar hinted at a buildup that thankfully never came. As a vocalist, Rihanna was more assured, playing into the anxious pitter-patter of the piano and keeping calm in the tense dead spaces between beats.
When all was said and done, however, there’s a good chance neither Rihanna performance was the most memorable musical set piece of this week’s “SNL.” Behold the mystical wonder that is Mokiki.
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