Is Rihanna out for blood or not?
Early in her Tuesday night headlining set at Staples Center supporting her new album, “Loud," the Barbados-born singer took gleeful pleasure in her new single, “Man Down,” a traditional dub reggae tune that inverts the genre’s narrative staple of the gun-toting “badman.” Here it’s a woman with an itchy trigger finger. Her stage set was filled with nods to female vengeance -– a giant pink cannon, dancers in military fatigues and elaborate bondage outfits. When she pulled a hapless audience member, a middle-aged man, onstage for a slow grind mid-set, she looked as if she’d found the perfect murder weapon: death by intentional massive coronary.
Yet while much of her career of late has emphsized her bad-girl bona fides, she made sure to balance them with truly earnest pop. In “California King Bed,” she pleaded for domestic joy and high-end furniture; on the slow piano burn “Unfaithful,” she even admitted, “I don’t want to be a murderer.” Plenty of women in pop swap between playing a destroyer of the dance floor and a heartbroken balladeer. But true-life events have made Rihanna’s artistic intentions feel especially revealing of a moment in music, feminism and the media.
At Staples, however, she played those intentions awfully close to her bulletproof vest.
It’s almost impossible for an audience to unpack Rihanna’s newer, rougher music without also recalling her horrific 2009 assault at the hands of then-boyfriend Chris Brown. It was hard to read her bleak, techno-Gothic 2009 release “Rated R” as anything but a concept album about the fallout from it.
But the one person who seems to have no problem moving on is, well, Rihanna. Tuesday night’s set was a long reminder that, of all your favorite songs on pop radio in the last five years, she likely had a hand in many of them.
Few artists have benefited more from music’s turn to frosty neo-disco. Tracks such as “The Only Girl In the World” and “Disturbia” had the clubland-anthem kick that dominated underground house and electronica throughout the '90s. The lip-bitten come-to-bed jam “Skin” was a pop update of dubstep’s slinky low-end and heavy reverb that felt especially true to her light West Indian patois. And it must be said, if only because Rihanna makes such a point of it onstage: It’s hard to imagine another artist using their body as an accent to come-hither singles as well as she does.
But one thing her set didn’t do, for better or worse, was tell her own story. An arena headliner’s job is to make sense of a long, disparate career and give tens of thousands of fans a new way to see her. Rihanna is a singles artist, more interested in mercurial moments and misdirection than a coherent narrative (no wonder that the bleak “Rated R’s” biggest and best single “Rude Boy” was an upbeat vamp taunting a guy to see whether he’s “big enough” to take her home).
This is great for her career on the radio. But the design and pacing of her Staples set felt as if she wanted everything at once -- the sequined stomp of '70s disco during “Only Girl in the World,” the martial riposte of “Hard,” and the humid dancehall bounce of “Pon de Replay.” These are all fine singles, but as sequenced and visually imagined Tuesday, they didn’t quite add up to a journey. And for an artist so adept at four-minute blasts of enticing, electric pop, she gave way too much stage time to hair-metal guitar-solo wankery (perhaps proving that even Warrant is exotica to someone).
But even if Rihanna’s intentions are a bit inscrutable, when you can close a night out with “Umbrella” (2007’s undisputed song of the summer), her career-defining ode to resilience and loyalty, you don’t have to let on what you’re really thinking. In a culture that asks artists to be open books, we can’t help but watch the girl who might either kill us with kindness -- or gun us down and walk away smiling.
For the record, 3 p.m. June 29: This post originally referred to Rihanna's single "Hard" as "So Hard."
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-- August Brown
Photo: Rihanna reaches out to an audience member while performing to a packed Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday. Credit: Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times