Last month, on the night Rihanna won her seventh Grammy award, the 25-year-old singer performed "Stay," a sparsely arranged ballad from her latest album, "Unapologetic."
Often known for bombastic performances of uptempo dance songs, Rihanna instead gambled on raw emotion and vulnerability. The lack of flash, and flesh, was uncharacteristic, but the risk paid off. It was one of the few highlights of an otherwise lackluster night.
Unsurprisingly, CBS panned to Chris Brown, dressed all in white, for the first reaction. Standing and clapping, the R&B singer, who beat Rihanna four years earlier after an argument, beamed proudly. Moments later, Rihanna returned to her seat next to Brown, her date and, according to a recent interview with Elle UK, the inspiration for the tender "Stay."
Moments like this are uncomfortable, fascinating and difficult to ignore. They've also become a regular occurrence for Rihanna, who can expertly provoke and gleefully confound expectations.
In a way wholly unique to her, Rihanna — who brings her Diamonds World Tour to 1st Mariner Arena on Tuesday — has blended her private and public life to create an extremely popular, highly profitable and incredibly messy persona.
In the process, she has transformed herself from bland-but-efficient hitmaker (the 2007 hollow single "Shut Up and Drive" exemplifies this) to arguably pop music's biggest star today. It poses the question: Why can't we look away?
Makeba Riddick-Woods, the Baltimore-born songwriter who has written and produced for Rihanna since the singer was 16, says it's a combination of having the right songs and a loyal fan base that loves the singer unconditionally.
"If she didn't have these hit songs, nobody would be talking about her," Riddick-Woods said. "But it's a testament to her star. It's so bright and so huge that people want to know what she's doing, what dress she's wearing. They want to see her videos and go to her shows. I think some of the controversy and some of the other stuff adds to that."
Rihanna's Instagram feed, which has more than 5.6 million followers, displays the "other stuff" most explicitly, and in real time — weed-smoking selfies, dirty memes and a general defiance for anyone questioning her. Lately, she's been posting candid photos of herself and Brown, so we can watch their romance rekindle as it happens.
Ki Ki Brown, an on-air host at 92Q, says she's tired of hearing opinions on Rihanna and Brown possibly dating again, but says Rihanna shouldn't be surprised at negative reactions.
"You can't make everybody happy," Brown said. "Being a superstar in this type of society, when you make things public, you have to expect public opinion. You get what you put out."
Marijuana use and crass sex jokes seem harmless compared to Rihanna's reconciliation with her one-time abuser. Jon Caramanica, a pop music critic for The New York Times, says it's natural to feel uncomfortable when seeing Rihanna and Brown back together, but it's important to withhold complete judgment since we don't know the nature of their intimacy.
"You can't help but be concerned when anyone who has read the police report or seen the photos knows exactly what happened," Caramanica said. "That said, we've all made romantic mistakes and exercised poor judgment. I don't want to see a woman pilloried for maybe making a bad choice."
Rihanna, born Robyn Fenty, has been a dependable star for so long (her first hit, "Pon de Replay," was released in May 2005) that it's easy to forget she's 25, and that the domestic abuse incident happened when she was only 20. Caramanica says he'd be surprised to see Rihanna still acting this way years from now.
"You're seeing someone grow up in real time in a way people don't like," he said. "She may have a moment two, three, four years from now where she says, 'Enough. I found peace.'"
Riddick-Woods and Caramanica both point out that Rihanna is only one of many music stars who don't make ideal role models. There have always been hedonistic rock stars and controversial pop artists like Madonna, who use their art and public persona to challenge societal norms. Rihanna is no different, they say.
"I think she's on a platform, and she's living her life and her truth," Riddick-Woods said. "She can't be responsible for other peoples' kids. ... It's weird what people choose to latch onto when so many artists set the wrong example. So why her?"
Perhaps it's because Rihanna is such a naturally magnetic force, both on stage and off, that everyone has an opinion. But really, it's a mixture of everything about Robyn Rihanna Fenty. Her striking looks, at times excellent music, complicated history, Billboard dominance, Internet presence and elusive charisma that all great pop stars must possess all make her one of the world's biggest stars, and naturally, one of the most widely discussed topics.
"I stand here, in this moment, still very interested, even when her music doesn't hold my interest all the time," Caramanica said. "I don't see it slowing down in the immediate future. Also, who's got next? Elle Varner? No one's there to take her spot yet."
If you go
Rihanna performs Tuesday at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. ASAP Rocky will also perform. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35-$125. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com. Update: Rihanna's concert at 1st Mariner Arena has been postponed. Check out the Midnight Sun blog for more details.