Deeply affecting and intimate are not words you would expect to use when referring to a Rihanna show, but here we are. Taking cues from the likes of George R. R. Martin, Kingdom Hearts games and MKS, 2015 left us guessing if we would ever get a new Rihanna album and more importantly, did we care? Judging from the number of those in attendance at Wembley Stadium, the answer would appear to be no. I can only assume this is due to quite possibly the poorest album campaign in recent memory because Anti stands as Rihanna’s greatest body of work and was arguably worth the wait. But as we are all too aware, people are idiots and would rather allow Coldplay to sell out Wembley than see an artist at the top of her game do the same.
Opening with Stay, a subdued Rihanna entered through a gap in the audience, slowly walking toward the largely bare stage dressed as an early noughties Emma Frost. As I stood amongst the crowd I couldn’t help but feel anxious for her and how she must feel to look out and see the rows of unsold seats lining the stadium. Given the sombre subject of the song I felt as though I, and many others in the audience, were willing her to pull through what appeared to be a sad situation. This created an instant intimate relationship between Rihanna and those with the good taste to attend, something that was unexpected, yet welcome, for a stadium show. This display of vulnerability, intentional or not, was a perfect way to open as opposed to what many would have predicted to be one of her many bangers. As her arresting vocals on Stay came to a close, Ms. Fenti removed her hood and allowed an impish grin to adorn her face and in that moment, any illusions that this was a disheartened performer were quickly put to rest.
As Rihanna moved through her set list it was evident that this was not a show for the filthy casual. This was a performer in more control of her artistic direction and career than ever before and with it sees the absence of songs you would find on a greatest hits rightfully in favour of superior material from Anti and her more urban efforts such as BBHMM, Man Down and Pour It Up. It is with this newfound control she has that brings with it a rewarding experience for an audience member as we behold Rihanna truly relishing every moment and pussy pat of being on stage. And even more rewarding and exciting for those of us, like me, who have closely followed Rihanna’s career from the beginning, as she is done pandering to those filthy filthy casuals.
In the latter stage of the set list, Rihanna turned up and took us through an extended medley of her euphoric club scene songs: Take Care, We Found Love and Where Have You Been. What could have been a simple up-tempo segment was given new context to create a rather special and touching moment celebrating and dedicated to her LGBT fans; and as one of those LGBT fans, it was made all the more affecting in light of the recent Orlando tragedy. Lighting the stadium up in rainbow hues and utilising sickening queer dancers, Riri joined them for some fierce vogue choreography that felt like an authentic celebration of the LGBT club scene. Fitting as it’s a scene and community that has embraced Rihanna’s music fully ever since Pon De Replay scalped us in 2005. Even the chosen songs, which I would normally class as throwaway Rihanna tracks, took on a whole new meaning with the LGBT context. Lyrically ringing true with a newfound specificity to us, which I had never considered before, brought over a wash of emotion and gratitude to Rihanna. It’s just a shame to know that most of this would have went over the heads of your average hetty.
Rihanna saved the best for last with her string of closing songs consisting of Four Five Seconds, Love On The Brain and Kiss It Better that allowed us all to just vent with Rih and let our emotions pour out. It was here where I truly realised the power and appeal of Rihanna as a live performer. Rihanna is not the greatest vocalist, nor dancer but what she does bring is an enchanting charisma and raw ability to emote through her performance. I don’t mean to discount her unique vocals by any means as they are powerful in their own right and have only improved with age. It is the imperfections in her voice which make witnessing her live quite so perfect as each lyric to fall off of her tongue is savoured and filled with a conviction and sincerity that a majority of artists lack. Love On The Brain in particular was a deeply affecting experience, so much so that it moved me to tears as Rihanna displayed the full breadth of her vocal ability in what was undoubtedly the highlight of an already incredible show. It’s Rihanna’s favourite song of hers for a reason. A true moment. As she closed with Kiss It Better, against the initially questionable bare stage with little to no production, it was clear that the reason for this is because Rihanna, herself, is the production. I am truly grateful to have witnessed an artist in what may be her prime. It is just such a shame that the rest of the world didn’t have the ability to do the same but that is their problem, not mine.