Rihanna kicked off Loud, her fourth headlining tour, in Baltimore Saturday night, performing for a mostly sold-out 1st Mariner Arena for nearly two hours.

Flitting from hit to hit, over 20 of them overall, the show was a testament to Rihanna's chart dominance over the past five years, when she's become our most reliable manufacturer of arena pop.

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It was also one of the best pop concerts so far this year, a visually interesting, well-designed show that moved through sections with none of the clunkiness that bogged down Lady Gaga's Monster Ball Tour, where costume changes and unwieldy set-pieces took up too much time.

Except for a the ballads that almost marred the fourth act, Rihanna's Loud was a seamless stream of upbeat dance music, and she did it without sacrificing impressive stagecraft or pizzazz.

Conscious that, despite having twice as many hits as Gaga (37 to 15 gold and platinum certifications) she is thought of as the less flashy pop star, she made a few stabs at grabbing headlines. On "Darling Nikki," a Prince cover, she played Kyle MacLachlan to a bevy of showgirls. And in  "Skin," she picked a female audience member off the crowd and gave her a lap dance.

Rapper J. Cole opened the show, followed by Cee Lo Green, who took a valedictory lap around 1st Mariner before Rihanna went on, shaking hands with fans and signing autographs. The headliner was late by about a half hour from her previously announced, 9:15 p.m. starting time.

She opened with a kaleidoscopic tableau. Three enormous pods were lowered on stage suggesting she'd emerge out of them, but instead they doubled as enormous, oracle-like video screens. Rihanna was wheeled in singing "Only Girl (in the World)" and wearing an iridescent blue mini-trench, pink heels, and a mane of curly red hair, a crimson, Caribbean Baby Jane.

Four dancers wore matching DayGlo outfits in phosphorescent pinks, greens and traffic-cone oranges. Rihanna undressed into a glow-in-dark bikini for her next number, "Disturbia," where, she unfortunately hit a a few bad notes. Later on - as in "S&M"  - her vocals were drowned out by her backing band, which included two back-up singers, as well as two guitarists, a DJ, and a drummer. But on the whole, her voice was in good shape.

A busted graffiti'ed car was lifted on stage for "Shut Up and Drive," a more logical set-piece here than it was when Gaga did it a few months ago or when Carrie Underwood floated over 1st Mariner in a vintage pick-up truck. Rihanna's dancers during this number were crash-course dummies.

It was one of Loud's several clever moments. Especially for a singer who can be as robotic as Rihanna, you don't expect her to be witty. But she, or whoever designed the show - the press notes did not include credits save for attributing production to Live Nation - put together a show that is  - until the mainly sincere fourth act - tongue in cheek, and full of visual puns.

Her best moment of the night came on the fourth song, "Man Down," a quasi-ballad that should have slowed down the momentum she'd accumulated until then but that was instead an ideal marriage of production and performance. With the stage bathed in red lights, she played up the murder fantasy song's ominousness by slowly increasing its pace. In the end, it sounded like an incantation.

She saw the song through to its logical conclusion into the follow-up, "Darling Nikki," butching it up in a slim penguin suit and an oversized red bow. Straddling a a high-backed throne, she primmed over two female dancers, one squirming while chained to the floor and another dancing suggestively on a pole.

"S&M" was a natural segue. This time, she was chained to the stage, while, from underneath, disembodied arms poked out grabbing her. Eventually, dancers popped out, and the song ended with a pillow fight. It was an inventive and counter intuitive moment that for all the earlier vampiness - even the lap dance during "Skin," the song that followed - shows Rihanna doesn't take her S&M seriously.

The next section of the show was equally risible. On "Hard," she rode in on a makeshift tank and was flanked by dancers sporting fatigues and pink rifles. At the end of the night, she played for gravitas with several ballads, a setback for a show that had moved until then at a breakneck speed. She over-emoted on "Unfaithful" and "Hate that I Love You," which she sung in a dramatic, canary-yellow floor-length gown.

The crowd lapped it up anyway, singing along as they had for each song throughout the night, even the ballads. While at the Monster Tour, the crowd's excitement ebbed as Gaga played new songs, or some of the more obscure ones, Rihanna seemed almost incapable of losing her audience. It says something about her ubiquity the past several years that almost every song she played Saturday night was instantly recognizable. 

Set list:

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Only Girl (In The World)
Disturbia
Shut Up and Drive
Man Down
Darling Nikki (Prince cover)
S&M
Let Me
Skin
Raining Men
Hard
Breaking Dishes
Glamorous Life
Run This Town
Live Your Life
Complicated
Unfaithful
Hate That I Love You
California King Bed
What's My Name?
Rude Boy
Cheers
Please Don't Stop the Music
Take A Bow
Love The Way You Lie (Part II)
Umbrella

Photo: Rihanna at 1st Mariner Arena (Colby Ware/Special to the Sun)

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