To promote her new album, Unapologetic, Rihanna has set off on an ambitious globetrotting tour that will hit seven countries in seven days. Rolling Stone contributor Jeff Rosenthal is on the plane with a small army of fans and assistants, and an extravagant amount of champagne.
Rihanna's been on board for less than 15 minutes, and already everything is out of wack. She's inspected the plane, walking from nose to tail between cameras of all shapes and sizes, laughing, calling the experience some "presidential shit." Immediately after, she commandeers the PA system and insists everyone get "muthafuckin' crunk."
At the moment, Rihanna is walking from seat to seat, pouring Ace of Spades champagne. It doesn't take long for her to find me, by which point she's already missing the cups altogether, creating and adding to a puddle between seats 39C and D. "There ya go!" she says, smiling.
Now she hoists a bottle of D'usse, another of Jay-Z's brands, and says, "If you really want to black out, here's some cognac." Rihanna's current role exists somewhere closer to bad influence than flight attendant, a one-woman party rolling up and down the aisles. The conversation is less forced than one would reasonably expect, because Rihanna doesn't really converse: she throws words in one's direction and keeps walking, a lifetime of lessons learned from dealing with paparazzi. There are moments of realness, though, like when she finds herself tangled in someone's iPhone power cord, or when she threatens to stage a Zoolander-style walk-off against a particularly brassy girl.
It's a crazy thing to try and explain. Over the course of seven days, Rihanna (and, really, some hard-working Def Jam handlers) will shuttle a plane filled with 200 writers, fans and hangers-on through seven countries, where she'll play seven shows. (It's the 7-7-7 tour; we and Rihanna are all sharing a Boeing 777.) It is a trip bursting with pampered hyperbole – MTV Cribs set in the sky, the likes of which most never see: five-star hotels, VIP passes, the dignity of keeping your belt on at airport security. There are supposedly 70 bottles of champagne on board.
And the trip is a frantic scribble across the globe: Los Angeles, Mexico City, Toronto, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, London and – finally – New York, a trek of 14,000 miles in seven days. It is a glamorous escape from reality, a chance to see the world, a rock & roll fantasy camp with Rihanna as our troop leader.
Or at least that's the plan. One delay begets three; time is an impossible master to please for us. Our planned arrival at El Plaza Condesa in Mexico City was scheduled for 5:00 p.m.; instead, we walked in over three hours later. Rihanna, onstage last night, noted the long wait: "I want to apologize for being late. Our bags were late. This is our first time bringing around a group this big." Leaving for Toronto, same thing. Unfortunately, there just isn't much time for sightseeing when you're not actually anywhere. It's no wonder that big-time touring musicians often say they don't know what city they're in. We watched Mexico City through bus windows. It looked dark.
When in Mexico, Rihanna did as the Mexicans do. Getting ready for "Fresh Off the Runway," the intro track to her upcoming LP, she looked offstage. "Jennifer," she said, "I need my hat, boo." She held a beat before continuing, ". . . por favor." The crowd went nuts, just as they did with every mention of Mexico City (of which there seemed to be 777). They also particularly enjoyed the Soca interpolation that her backing band threw into the middle of "What's My Name," far more than the "Rack City"-type instrumental they'd included moments earlier, maybe because some West Indians made their way across the water and into the crowd.
Rihanna, live and in concert, doesn't sing much. Her hits are so big she doesn't really need to, but – tellingly – she often puts the microphone by her crotch. (She relies heavily on her two slithering backup singers, who sometimes come in to push songs over the finish line. To her credit, she does do the brunt of the work on less-demanding songs: she belts "Wait Is Over" and giggles her way through "Take a Bow.") During "Cake," she pats her thighs, as if slapping cheese on them. Dressed in a Rock-n-Jock-style leather baseball jersey, micro-bra and biker shorts, Rihanna winds and wiggles; she'll stick her ass out and look around the backside, as if posing for a Coppertone ad. Somehow, she makes the Stanky Legg seem appealing, as she does during "Where Have You Been." An entire swath of the audience – several rows of people, every single one of them with cameras held high – moves as one while watching her, as if being swept away by water. It looks dangerous, even violent, though strangely beautiful: a mosh-pit in which all parties move in the same direction. I've never seen anything like it.
THINGS I SAW:
A man juggling fire at a red light, while an endless line of cars waited in front of him; an audience member holding up a creepy doll that sort of resembled Rihanna, which moved closer to the stage as the show went on until she said "That's love," unconvincingly. Also, a Def Jam publicist, smiling over a cup of coffee after yet another delay. "Pretty ambitious, isn't it?" he said.
THINGS I DIDN'T SEE:
"Talk That Talk"
"Wait is Over"
"Only Girl in the World"
"Fresh Off the Runway"
"Take a Bow"
"Can't Let You Know"
"Take Care" (Interlude)
"Where Have You Been"
"What's My Name"
"Run This Town"
"Live Ya Life"
"All of the Lights"
"We Fell In Love"