Bey and Jay, and now Eminem and Rihanna: The package tours ruling summer 2014 definitely have a superstar Sonny and Cher vibe, pairing hip-hop testosterone with a female vocalist of equal power. That dichotomy was clear from the kickoff of the six-date, three-city “Monster Tour” last night at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. At 8:15 p.m., the concert began with a short film paying homage to Silence of the Lambs. Here, Rihanna visits San Quentin Maximum Security Prison, where she’s escorted by a warden (played by The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli) who leads her to an Eminem bound-up Hannibal Lecter-style. The warden bursts into a massive array of fireworks; Eminem, strapped to a hospital bed, is lowered onto a stage shimmering with elaborate multimedia effects; and after all that, the music finally begins.
The Rihanna-Eminem collaboration “Numb” actually launched the show, starting a six-song joint performance that set the tone for the rest of the evening. Immediately, the contrast between the two headliners was evident in their stage wear. Rihanna wore white Doc Martens and a dramatic drop-crotch ensemble emblazoned with hot rod flames, baring her midriff with a short top; Eminem, meanwhile, made his entrance in inner-city everyman mufti – dark camo bomber jacket, black hoodie, G-Shock, cargo pants and Nike Air Maxes. Backed by a crack 10-piece band (horn section included), the pair’s music blended more fluidly. It was great, for instance, when Rihanna’s interpolation of her Jay Z/Kanye collaboration “Run This Town” flowed seamlessly into Eminem’s verse from another Jay Z track, “Renegade.”
Seven songs in, Eminem exited the stage and Rihanna launched into a 17-track solo set full of crystalline, non-Auto-Tuned vocals. “Phresh Out the Runway” introduced the first of perhaps 1,000 lascivious crotch grabs as well as kinetic choreography involving a line of dancers clad in black S&M gear. Not since Madonna has a mainstream star owned her sexuality the way Rihanna did here, but the singer also remained playful and fun, using phallic missile graphics to accompany her “Rude Boy” pelvic thrusting.
The near-capacity crowd ate up her every twerk and gyration, accompanying her through vigorous call-and-response sing-alongs on uptempo hits like “Umbrella” as well as ballads like “Stay.” For the latter, Rihanna put the elaborate dance moves and lighting effects on pause, holding the audience with little more than piano and voice for the night’s biggest iPhone-aloft moment. Her solo take on Kanye’s “All of the Lights” proved equally sublime, even more stirring than on record.
Eminem and Rihanna’s initial chart-buster “Love the Way You Lie” transitioned into Eminem’s main solo set. Playing 20 songs culled across his career, the iconic Detroit rapper ran across the stage and contorted his body for emphasis, but this movement never overshadowed his superlative MC skills – undiminished, if not better than ever. Naturally, hits like “The Real Slim Shady” and “Without Me” inspired mass rap-alongs, but the blinding double-time flow on his blowout verse from Drake’s “Forever” and especially “Rap God” reiterated that if hip-hop has a Hendrix, a prodigy who just continues to astonish with talent and innovation, it’s likely him.
Toward the middle of his set, Rihanna returned to duet on Paramore’s “Airplanes” and “Stan,” bringing her own brand of beautiful, wounded melancholy to Dido’s immortal refrain before Eminem launched into more recent material. “Berzerk” proved a standout here, living up to its title with a wild, manic reading driven by its pounding, Rick Rubin-enhanced classic rock big beats.
The show climaxed with another joint mini-set kicked off by a pair of particularly euphoric Rihanna hits: “Diamonds” and “We Found Love,” which started out as a bongos-and-acoustic beatnik workout before coalescing into its more familiar EDM version, replete with Daft Punk-style pyramid rave imagery projected on the jumbo screens lining the stage. The night’s most anthemic moment, however, was the soaring take on Eminem’s soundtrack smash “Lose Yourself” that followed, setting up a closing performance of the tour’s namesake duet.
“The Monster” appropriately summed up the themes that link these seemingly disparate performers: Both, in their own distinct ways, often use their art to expose their private demons. This tendency made the event still feel a bit more rebellious, unpredictable and raw than the typical big-name stadium concert. That nervy aspect became especially clear towards the end, when Rihanna thanked the audience “for rocking out with your cock out.” Likewise, as Eminem exited the stage for the last time, he rewarded the ecstatic, roaring crowd by double-flipping them the bird – still Slim Shady as he ever was, creating unwholesome family entertainment for all.