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.
It's only the second day, and already exhaustion has set in. (Perhaps it's because we've taken the least used route of traveling through all three North American countries in less than 24 hours.) The mood around baggage claim is grim, but Rihanna has put on a brave face for the paparazzi, who have all attached themselves to her like tick birds to the rhinoceros.
There she is, hugging some women, her pink hat and sunglasses blocking much of her face. Then she pops up on the other side of the loop, helping to lift a girl's bag off the conveyer belt. The cameramen zoom in on this random act of kindness, making Rihanna out to be a hero. From what I can see, she doesn't retrieve any of her own luggage. It's a weird photo-op, but a photo-op nonetheless.
It's been two days and we still haven't felt the sun on our skin; Toronto looks bright in the distance, though. On our way to the Danforth, a small venue in a seemingly transitioning part of town, we drive through parts of the country that are completely nondescript – there are roadways that shoot in every direction, a multiplex of highways. The guy in front of me, Omar from Mexico, filmed the experience for an extended period of time. Maybe it was more interesting than I'd realized.
We pass a high-rise corporate office building for Canada Bread. That and the image of a queen's crown on certain road signs are the only things distinguishing this part of Canada from the United States. (A border agent laughed and said, "I don't think we have enough time for that, eh?" to me after I thought her asking "What's your purpose?" was an existential question.)
Being awake for what feels like forever and following a schedule that is largely the same feels a lot like Groundhog Day. But with so many people from so many different countries all thrown together, we're constantly meeting new people, having new conversations. I mean, there's obviously opportunity for important cultural exchange when we're all just hanging out on the bus. To wit: while driving past downtown Toronto, some Canadians explain Tim Horton's to the Americans; the Americans explain Subway to the Brits. (A girl from Los Angeles says, "Subway is like a diet food here. You can lose weight eating that, if you eat it enough." Sure, why not.)
A bunch of writer-friends and I walk into the venue and head up to the balcony, where we have a perfect view of the diehard Rihanna fans below. They're all standing still, as if they just heard a noise. DJ Congorock's opening set – progressive EDM thrown into a washing machine – appears to have zero effect on them. Following them, DJ Reflex gets much the same reaction: Meek Mill? No. House remix of Florence and the Machine? Nope. Even "N---as in Paris," the undeniable chin-nodder, only sees movement in three pockets of the audience. I look away, confused. Finally, people are screaming, excited about something: it's a 20-year-old Fatman Scoop song, the one that goes "If my train goes off the track, pick it up, pick it up, pick it up." The same reaction comes up intermittently for Cee-Lo's "Forget You," Damian Marley's "Welcome to Jamrock" and DJ Scream's "Let Me Clear My Throat," from 1996. I have no idea what the psychological profile is of a serial killer, but I imagine it's something like that of a Torontonian.
The concert starts at 9:17, which is stunningly close to being on time for us. The lights come down; the crowd chants "Rih Rih! Rih Rih! Rih Rih!" – it's seemingly friendly and supportive, though it does conjure visions of Psycho. Rihanna, dressed in pants that bow and wave, high-steps her way out in nude heels. She seems so much more alive than last night; it's almost as if she's channeling Obama's second debate. (Was it the plane's altitude that caused her to be so tired? Or maybe it was the long hours waiting around? Did she drink too much of the champagne? Or maybe not enough?)
Her voice climbs the scales up and then down during "Talk That Talk;" she performs something resembling a rain dance for "Unfaithful." But then she gets tired as "S&M" comes on – one wonders how someone who claims to last all night can only go for 20 minutes. But, hark: she downs a shot onstage, and much like Popeye, she immediately gets her strength back, and puts on a fairly solid set.
THINGS I SAW:
Beefy Swedish guys modeling Rihanna tees for MTV Style while throwing up peace signs; a pizza that cost $33 in the hotel lobby; a sign for a store that said "FUTURE SHOP" which sort of blew my mind, because WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?
THINGS I DID NOT SEE:
A wink of sleep; the inside of the Canada Bread building.