Last night I went on assignment to review Rihanna’s show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. It was the second of two shows she performed there on her ANTI tour, and I had been looking forward to it since the date was announced early this year. Reviewing is a form of criticism, but it is very hard for me to think critically about Rihanna. Impossible, really. I am obsessed with her. The wall space above my desk has six different portraits of her pasted on it. I cut them all out of the 2014 Rihanna calendar that a friend gave me for Christmas. (This year she gave me Rihanna nail decals). The other six photos are comparably excellent, but there isn’t enough room for them on this small wall space of mine. A colleague recently asked me to explain what it is that I love about Rihanna so much and my mouth flopped open and shut for a good twenty seconds before I just blurted out something along the lines of: “SHE’S PERFECT.” That was an inaccurate analysis. Rihanna is not perfect, just like I am not perfect, and it is within that imperfection that her beauty lies.
My first introduction to Rihanna took place over ten years ago, in 2005, when the Barbadian singer released “Pon De Replay.” I was an unreasonably stubborn pubescent girl who refused to listen to anything that could not be loosely defined as “rock music.” My lower eyelids were caked in dollar black liner, I wore a dumb studded belt I bought from Hot Topic, and American Idiot was undeniably my favorite album. None of these things embarrass me; falling hard and fast for commercial “cool” gave me a voracious appetite for music, and in a lot of ways one of Green Day’s worst albums shaped my identity. But something I am fairly ashamed of is how phobic I was of Top 40 radio. I was the mid-aughts equivalent of someone continuing to refer to people as “hipsters” in 2016; obsessed with authenticity, repulsed by posturing, complicit in allowing my tastes to define me.
“Pon De Replay” changed all of that. The first time I saw the video for Rihanna’s breakout single, I was sitting in my grandfather’s emerald green recliner watching VH1. That song starts with a boot-stomp and a hand-clap, the kind of simple, tactile beat that Lil Mama amplified on 2008’s “Lipgloss” (another formative hit). In the video, Rihanna’s friends complain that the DJ at the club has the music on too low. She looks straight at the camera, lifts her index finger and says: “I’ll make him turn it up.” It was the baddest shit I’d ever seen, badder than Billie Joe Armstrong pretending to be a sad suburban teen strung out on his own Ritalin. Badder than my dumb studded belt.
Rihanna is the kind of woman who will make you want to do things. It’s not because she’s manipulative or conniving, but because she’s powerful. You either submit to that power or do your best to mimic it in every possible way. I stopped biting my fingernails because I wanted them to be pointy and talon-like, manicured like Rihanna’s. I have a tattoo that I would be lying if I said wasn’t somewhat inspired by the ones wrapped around her wrists. This is how I choose to worship, but you don’t need to see what Rihanna looks like, or that she’s pop music’s bad gyal to know it; you can hear it in her voice. Back when I had absolutely no interest in dressing like Rihanna, or clubbing like Rihanna, I was still drawn to her because of that imperfect and unmistakable voice. It bends and breaks in all of the right places, a confident rasp that lends itself to so many different kinds of pop songs. Since “Pon De Replay,” she’s done ballads and EDM anthems, but despite the disparate quality of her varying sounds, Rihanna makes every song her own. She’s the only pop star in the world that I can think of who has a voice that I would never, ever, ever mistake for someone else’s. When Rihanna’s featured on a track, she swallows it whole.
Accompanying that inimitable voice is her public persona: Badgal RiRi. It’s the name of her (incredible) Instagram handle, her (also incredible) Snapchat. We as a collective society love to break down celebrities and pop stars to find the root of what they are really like. I’ve never had that urge with Rihanna. Everything she does and says always comes off as impulsive, unintentional exposure of her truest self. She gets to be carefree and wild because unlike many women in pop music, Rihanna is not expected to act the part of a role model, even though her tour merch mockingly claims that she is one.
Rihanna found a dog in the bathroom of a club, brought him home with her, and named him Pepe. Rihanna makes Tweets like this:
Either I was phuck wasted lastnight, or I saw a Thai woman pull a live bird,2 turtles,razors,shoot darts and ping pong, all out of her pu$$y
— Rihanna (@rihanna) September 21, 2013
Never underestimate a man’s ability to make you feel guilty for his mistakes
— Rihanna (@rihanna) December 13, 2012
Rihanna goes on Ellen to play Never Have I Ever with George Clooney and refers to sex as: “seal the deal, lick the envelope, and close it.” Rihanna uploaded ANTI’s “James Joint” to her website on 4/20/2015 and when it was promptly taken down, internet commentators suggested that she was stoned and did so by accident. I was perplexed by this. Rihanna doesn’t make mistakes — she owns her mistakes. They coalesce to form the “Rude Gyal” that she proudly called herself after jokingly referring to her band as “ugly” onstage at her Brooklyn show last night.
Rihanna opened her set with “Stay,” a ballad off of 2012’s Unapologetic that features Mykki Ekko. It almost felt unfair, like she was trying to prematurely devastate me. It was my first Rihanna concert, and I came ready to weep. “Stay” is the song I listen to when I get the sense that someone I’ve invested a significant amount of time in is on their way out. Like the best Rihanna songs, it mediates the highest highs and the lowest lows of a relationship, acknowledges the volatile Jekyll and Hyde characteristics in all of us. ANTI might be the most mature reflection on that dichotomy; it’s a collection of songs about losing love and losing bits and pieces of yourself in the process. Part of being the Badgal RiRi is knowing how to marry joy and sorrow, dark and light, and practically every Rihanna hit submerges our collective heartbreaks in hedonism (the “We Found Love” video being my favorite example of that). From “Stay” she transitioned into 2010’s “Love The Way You Lie,” a song that sounds so much better without Eminem on it. She performed both shrouded in a white cape, hood up, in the middle the Barclays Center basketball court before a translucent catwalk picked her up and slowly moved her to the main stage.
It was a transcendent moment both literally and metaphorically as those emotional ballads gave way too ANTI’s “Woo.” Off came the white robe, and beneath it Rihanna blessed us all by exposing her beige, leather, ass-less chaps. Those chaps were one of four different costumes Rih donned last night, the best of which was a bustier covered by a brown, oversized men’s suit that laced up the back. All of the looks were understated and just-barely dramatic. Members of the live band were sheathed in Jedi-chic, drapey beige, and at one point Rihanna reappeared from a costume change in a brown, floor-length cloak with a constructed hood that made her look like a giant, very, very beautiful insect. She shed it like an exoskeleton to reveal a sequined, tiered black body suit that she gyrated in while performing “Rude Boy” and “Work.”
The Rihanna that I watched onstage last night is the same Rihanna that I fell hard and fast for in 2005. She’s still sassy as hell, and she’s still in charge. Even though its rollout was a certifiable nightmare, ANTI is still an exceedingly good album. It might even be her best. When “Work” — with its delicate, plodding dancehall beat — first dropped, it instantly reminded me of the younger, babyfaced Rihanna of “Pon De Replay.” And then it reminded me of the younger, babyfaced version of myself. While my taste for Evanescence, AFI, Green Day, and the like waned, my love for Rihanna has only strengthened in its intensity. I realized this last night, when Rih launched into “Where Have You Been,” off of the hit-parade 2011 release Talk That Talk. She is perhaps the only iconic figure of my early adolescent years that’s aged alongside me, carried me into my twenties and found a home in my heart.
That closeness I felt while everyone around me shouted along to “Where Have You Been” is the same kind that Miranda July described when she profiled Rihanna for The New York Times Magazine. A lot of people absolutely hated that piece, blamed July for being self-indulgent, for writing an article about herself rather than her subject. They’re right; July didn’t write a profile on Rihanna. She wrote a profile of a Rihanna fan, aptly describing what it feels like to be absolutely enraptured with someone who you don’t know. Who you don’t have a hope in the world of ever really knowing. I loved that piece, but reading a detailed description of what it felt like to drink with Rihanna on an outdoor patio was almost too intimate for me. I was overcome with jealousy.
Up until that point, I had never really thought about what it would be like to meet Rihanna. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and last night I realized that watching her perform for an audience of 18,103 people is the closest I will ever get. I’ll never shake her hand, never feel her manicured fingernails scrape against my own, never admire her eyes — which July claims to be “a pair of dizzying, hazel-green starbursts” — in person. I’ll just have to settle with seeing her perform every time she tours through New York from now until one of us dies. Unfortunately, I know I’ll be the first to go. Rihanna is, after all, immortal; a God among us.