all words: Andy Johnson, all photos: Elizabeth Parker
It took a few minutes, but I finally figured out what was so peculiar about the two young girls sitting in front of me. Many attending at Monday’s Rihanna concert were dressed in skimpy clothing. More than a few girls were only wearing spiked bras & bikini tops. All sorts of fluorescent locks and wild hairstyles were accounted for. As the old saying goes, the couple that gets matching mohawks together stays together.
However, these two were different than the rest of the multi-colored youth. They were, for lack of a better word, cosplaying. One was dressed as RiRi in the famous “Umbrella” video, clad in stockings and a tight, black corset. The second girl had dyed her hair neon scarlet and was wearing a striped zebra jacket, à la Robyn Fenty in her “What’s My Name?” video.
But these girls were a bit too precise in their fan worship. They were, for lack of an even better phrase, completely fucked up. Throughout ASAP Rocky’s set, the second girl grinded on the seat in front of her. When she turned around to gyrate, her agility gave out and she stumbled into yours truly. She apologized for her drunken dexterity, and I excused her. You’re at a Rihanna concert. You’re drunk with your friend. You’re having a good time. Let loose.
During the intermission, she laid her head on an open seat next to her. I asked Ms. “Umbrella” if her friend was all right. She shrugged, and started to play with her smartphone. The girl looked ill, and was audibly groaning.
And then she puked on me:
Prior to vomit gently caressing my Adidas, I was enjoying A$ap Rocky’s set. The Harlem rapper blew up due to his critically-acclaimed 2011 mixtape Live.Love.A$AP, garnering him a cool $3 million record deal with RCA. He came out a half-hour late, which is fairly punctual for most rappers. He was complemented by a bassist, drummer, two DJs, and for some reason, a white throne. Considering this is an artist who has rapped, “Only thing bigger than my ego is my mirror,” subtlety is not one of Rocky’s strong suits.
He opened with “Long Live A$AP”, the opening track of his debut album of the same name (click here for an extensive discussion of the same in our REC ROOM THERAPY column-ed). Flanking him were two video screens that cycled through television noise patterns, Doppler radar images, and close-ups of his glowing teeth. This crowd was very receptive to Rocky, rapping along to every word. Rocky is a charismatic fellow, but his showmanship, and thus his ability to connect with fans, was limited by the venue. I imagine he would destroy a site the size of the 9:30 Club, but his over-reliance on backing tracks, a necessary in the arena setting, undercut his performance.
He rolled through about a dozen songs off his two releases, aided by another member from his ASAP Mob. “PMW” was a notable banger, although I question if a man can truly survive solely on pussy, money and weed (methinks Rocky would need some sort of multivitamin supplement). The powerful bass from Hit-Boy’s beat on personal favorite “Goldie” was one of Rocky’s truly arena-ready moments. After inquiring where the potheads in the audience were at, he indulged DC with his verse off Schoolboy Q’s “Hands on the Wheel.” Acknowledging the time limit after performing radio hit “Fuckin’ Problems”, he closed out his 50-minute set with “Peso”, rapping, “Popping E, I don’t give a F, told you I’m a G.”
While I was getting a subpar hot dog, the two girls vanished. I felt bad for them, but it was necessary given their conditions. I’m all for partying hard, but don’t embarrass yourself.
Considering Rihanna has canceled several dates on this tour due to illness (“Exhaustion,” right?), and divas are known for starting the show whenever they want—damn the set times—I feared I’d be trapped inside the Verizon Center until well after midnight. Thankfully, she only kept her audience waiting an extra half hour.
At 9:40, the lights went dark and Rihanna appeared in the front, curled up in a robe, and sang part of “Mother Mary” off her most recent release, Unapologetic. This intimate moment gave way to Rihanna dropping her cloak to reveal a mesh negligee, fancy bra and knee-high boots, segueing into the David Guetta-produced “Phresh Out the Runway.”
The stage was cluttered with collapsed roman columns and large, moving video screens that broadcast images of diamonds, chandeliers, and statues crumbling into dust. Her backing band consisted of a bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and a long-haired lead guitarist, who obviously was a metalhead mercenary out to make some coin. In addition to several backup vocalists huddled in one corner of the stage were Rihanna’s backup dancers, who mimed as statues while Rihanna pranced around.
I want to take a second to reiterate how popular Rihanna is. In under a decade, she’s sold over 150 million records worldwide. She is the most popular person on Facebook, and has the 4th most followers on Twitter. More people have watched her videos on YouTube and streamed her tunes on Spotify than any artist in history. She trails only Mariah Carey for most No. 1 hits by a female artist. Just to rattle off some of her top hits: “Umbrella”, “We Found Love”, “SOS”, “Disturbia”, “Only Girl (In The World)”, “Take A Bow”, “S&M”, and recently, “Diamonds.” Let’s not forget she’s also provided hooks to some of the biggest songs in the past five years: “Love The Way You Lie”, “Run This Town”, “All Of The Lights”, “Live Your Life”, and “Take Care.” I could go on, but with all due respect to Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and the rest, commercially speaking, Rihanna has them all beat.
In other words, Rihanna is a singles machine. Her performance Monday replicated this assembly line, delivering monster hit after hit with little variation or improvisation. Let’s not ignore that while Rihanna is easy on the eyes, she’s never been the strongest vocalist. I’m not sure what percentage of her singing was lip synched, but her songs sounded more “real” coming from my car stereo than they did in concert.
I understand lip syncing is a necessary evil so pop stars can focus on chorography, but even acknowledging this, there were flashes where she looked more like a convulsing skeleton than a Bahamian princess. On “Birthday Cake,” her repetitive vagina-grabs became almost hypnotic. On “Cockiness (Love It),” her words & actions made it very clear that she enjoys cunnilingus.
Every pop star has a shtick, and Rihanna’s songs portray love as an intoxicant that she is unable to wean herself from. A visit to her Instagram reveals her love of marijuana, clubbing and other aspects of YOLO-culture. She is a hedonist—proud of it—and this was reflected in her show. She jumped up and down, implored the audience to sing along, and even asked the audience to “Get ratchet.” Considering I was partially covered in puke, we were already there.
Was the show fun? Absolutely. It’s impossible to not enjoy singing “Ella, ella, ella,” “Na-na-na,” or bopping along to the euphoric sheen of “We Found Love.” But I also don’t think it’s too much to ask for something more than an expensive night out from one of the world’s top pop artists. I imagine Rihanna’s own vices limit her professionalism as an entertainer. This was a fine show, but considering her commercial clout, she has the potential to deliver a more engrossing affair.
As I was leaving the Verizon Center, I saw paramedics tending to a girl with brightly-colored hair on a gurney. I gawked to see if it was Ms. “What’s My Name?” It wasn’t. It was a different girl being wheeled away for alcohol poisoning. It was that kind of night.