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Live Review: Rihanna, rated R for adult themes

July 22, 2010 |  3:46 pm

Her dark and thrilling new show takes on difficult topics, even in her lighter songs.

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For the couture-clad Amazons in today's pop ingénue brigade, self-presentation is a battle game of flirtation and threat. Never before has a group of young women so openly explored the darker side of the freedom that women's liberation has brought. Most observers credit Lady Gaga for bringing difficult themes such as self-alienation and violence against women to light, but Rihanna, who brought her first headlining tour to Staples Center Wednesday night, is right there with her on the front lines.

“Last Girl on Earth,” the title of her show, lays out the thematic territory Rihanna travels in her music. Though she started as a carefully controlled teen pop star, by her second album, “A Girl Like Me,” she'd begun exploring the more chaotic side of emotion. Her 2006 ballad “Unfaithful,” which she presented Tuesday as a torchy number sung in a nightclub that might be in Hell, imagines infidelity as a form of murder. She would continue to elaborate on these imaginings of love as a dangerous endeavor in songs such as “Shut Up and Drive” and “Hate That I Love You”; even her biggest hit, the tender “Umbrella,” unfolds in sad rhythms, its lyrics expressing pain as well as faithfulness.

So Rihanna and her collaborators had set the stage for this tour's bombardment of violent imagery — floating machine guns, a hot pink tank, a trashed car, menacing bird demons on stilts — long before her then-boyfriend Chris Brown assaulted her after a party in February 2009, forcing an all-too-real biographical detail on the already dark psychic realm she was exploring in her music. She responded artistically with “Rated R,” a brave album that laid out the sticky web of emotion an abused woman feels. “Last Girl on Earth” expands on this subject by presenting itself as Rihanna's dream world, which turns out to be a very troubling place.

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Troubling, but undeniably exciting. Working with the English fine artist Simon Henwood, who directed Kanye West's similarly disconcerting video for “Love Lockdown” (and whose partner is the singer Róisín Murphy, often cited as a source of both Gaga and Rihanna's outrageous fashions), Rihanna has devised an entertainment far more in touch with the unpredictable nature of the subconscious than, say, certain Hollywood movies treading similar ground.

Framed by films that use somewhat clunky language (“This is a dream,” the supertitles blandly announce) and creepy imagery that does seem related to Gaga's Monster Ball screen images, the show placed Rihanna within gothic fantasy landscapes where she delivered her songs in a gutsy, lonely wail.

She spent much of the show on a mid-room stage extension, separated from her band and backup singers; her dancers didn't interact with her so much as gyrate and engage in mock struggles nearby. Clad in outfits that lighted up with a robotic glow of lights, or in scanty outfits that might suit the high-end call girls of the post-apocalyptic age, Rihanna moved through her bombed-out interior landscapes.

RihannaPromo2 She didn't seem like a victim — performing “Rock Star 101,” she swaggered like a punk dominatrix, and in the club portion of the show featuring her older, lighter songs, her masking tape outfit and the Keith Haring-inspired cube in which she danced made her seem like a sprite in a plastic woodland. But in every setting, Rihanna faced some challenge, and her spitfire singing was her weaponry.

The show's musical framework suited her aggressive presentation. Her band, led by flashy guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, is more rock than R&B. It was exciting to hear Rihanna's music played live and with feeling, rather than being propelled by pre-recorded tracks, as so many top acts' live sets are now. New arrangements of her songs pushed Rihanna's singing into dramatic new territory; never has she seemed more akin to Ronnie Spector, another vocalist who bridges rock and soul with a voice that balances vulnerability on a knife's edge.

Spector has famously written that she was abused at the hands of her ex-husband, the producer Phil Spector. It may be a coincidence that Rihanna, like the Ronettes leader, finds a language she understands within the realm of rock; or it may be that this space of both liberation and male dominance feels like the right one to conquer. In the set's happier moments, Rihanna also nodded toward female empowerment through musical virtuosity — she hit the drums during a short tribute to former Prince percussionist Sheila E., and played a mock guitar during “Rock Star 101.” Maybe her next move will be to become a real guitarist.

At the moment, Rihanna is conquering the charts with “Love the Way You Lie,” a duet with Eminem that starkly revisits the abuse narrative. The rapper made a surprise appearance at Staples Center to perform that song with the night's star. Generating a firestorm of screams from the audience, Eminem fervidly related his verses, about being driven to criminal extremes by a toxic relationship. Rihanna sang her sorrowful hook — “I love the way it hurts” — as if she were the song's defeated conscience, unable to rise above its rage.

“Last Girl On Earth” suffers from a certain narrative confusion; Rihanna deals best in images and sonic moods, not direct statements, and this production doesn't have the thematic coherence of Gaga's work (or even of Britney Spears' similarly themed 2001 Dream Within a Dream tour). Yet in a way, the show's cacophonous spirit is appropriate to a time when young women like the many who flocked to see this show are fighting to reconcile privilege and freedom with aspects of sexism so deeply embedded in our culture that they're invisible.

Another way to deal with this problem is to laugh at it, and that's what Kesha, who performed a regrettably short set before Rihanna's extravaganza, manages to do. A comic artist who takes as her subject the hypocritical hipster world where sexism is too dull a subject to discuss, Kesha had a great time with the arena setting. Her indie-dude dancers, costumes that blended pop glamour with thrift store randomness, and a set seemingly lighted up with Christmas lights bought at Big Lots brought the junk art aesthetic long explored by fringe artists such as Royal Trux and Of Montreal to this Top 40 crowd. Kesha isn't a great singer, but she's a smart and very charismatic artiste who is staging her own kind of Amazon invasion. Kill 'em with jokes if the pink tanks don't work.

--Ann Powers

Photos: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times


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