To try and define "cool" -- perhaps the most wide-ranging and malleable of concepts that describes something we admire but fall short in articulating why -- is a futile exercise in trying to deny subjectivity. It's also pretty uncool to do.
But how else to describe Rihanna -- a superstar whose effortless persona seems bigger than her multi-platinum catalog -- at Royal Farms Arena on Saturday night? Her command of the stage and crowd never once wavered as she performed more than 25 songs and snippets that focused largely on her output this decade. (Her first single, 2005’s “Pon de Replay,” which was not performed, feels like an eternity ago.)
Surprisingly, she started the show with “Stay,” her tender ballad from the excellent 2012 album “Unapologetic.” Standing on a platform stage in the middle of the arena, Rihanna emerged in a flowing white outfit and proceeded to belt the song with stronger-than-expected vocals. In the beginning of her career, Rihanna’s voice had an anonymous quality, but the edges have since hardened as it has grown richer with emotional texture. Despite a limited range, Rihanna’s voice has become a strong instrument.
The somberness of “Stay” was soon replaced with songs more reflective of Rihanna’s steely reserve, a default mode of recent years she wears well regardless of the setting. The night’s most sunny songs were reminders of her past (“Umbrella,” “We Found Love”) but also felt like outliers. Most natural were the hip-hop-influenced celebrations of excess (“Pour It Up,” “B---h Better Have My Money”). They were also the most fun.
It was reported last July that Rihanna wanted to perform a free concert in Baltimore to show support for protesters after Freddie Gray’s death. She did not mention this or Gray on Saturday, but emphasized her appreciation of the crowd and its reception.
“This isn’t part of the show or anything,” she said, pointing out that the hyped-up audience obviously came to have a good time. If it was canned banter, she sold it.
It took Rihanna more than three years to release her latest album, “Anti,” so fresh material dotted the setlist. “Anti” is a strong album, and while it is not her most cohesive, that knock mattered little in concert, where moods pivot like a costume change. (There were at least four, by the way.) So tracks like the moody “Desperado” and “Woo,” an industrial pop-take clearly influenced by the night’s opening act Travis Scott, were given proper room to breathe free of context.
The best surprise was the strength of Rihanna’s voice, which soared on songs like “All of the Lights” and “Diamonds.” Dancing, not Rihanna’s forte, seemed charmingly off-the-cuff like when she’d roll her body dancehall-style during recent single “Work.”
But the dancing exemplifies Rihanna’s appeal as a star, which seemed undeniable throughout Saturday’s set. She has never been one to thrive on complicated choreography, and instead captivates through her nonchalance. Many of us gravitate to that attitude because who wouldn’t want to seem as carefree as Rihanna? Set to a killer soundtrack on Saturday, such envy felt well-earned, even if Rihanna never appeared to break a sweat. Talk about cool.