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 been three days; I’ve seen Rihanna’s live show three times. It’s largely the same every night, though every so often, she’ll make a slight change in the lineup (add “Stay” in Stockholm, drop “Disturbia” for Toronto). Her banter remains the same, and I’ve started mouthing the words along with her as she introduces songs. (For example, when going into “What’s My Name,” she recites the following: “Did someone say my name? It’s not na-na. It’s Rih-anna!”) So one notices the little things: How she channels Michael Jackson’s “HEE-hee” ad-lib; how she claps her hands like she’s a flamenco dancer using a Shake Weight; how she dresses like a combination of Aaliyah and Lil’ Kim from 1996.
That being said, this trip makes one appreciate the endurance it takes to be a touring artist. The grind of sleepless nights and wake-up calls is wearying for the two hundred non-performers on board, and yet – at least over the past three nights, a punishing trek spanning four cities – Rihanna has been getting better with age. Where “Fresh Off the Runway” felt like an uphill climb the first two times through, in Stockholm she sings it looking over her shoulder, a breezy afterthought. In Mexico City, she had been robotic and stiff. Now she moves her body as if molded by a Cinemax producer: no pretense, no inhibition, like she’s in on the joke. She flirts at every angle, she licks every inch of her lips. Rihanna, at her best, is a tease.
This experience also makes one realize how deep Rihanna’s back-catalog is that she hasn’t performed “Rude Boy” at any point; no “Hard,” “California King Bed,” or even “Russian Roulette,” with “SOS” and “Pon De Replay” collecting dust in her Wiki attic. She only pulled out last year’s “Love The Way You Lie” when Toronto fans demanded it (after she offered the opportunity to hear either that or a new song off Unapologetic). Different tracks earworm their way into the brain every day: “Diamonds” is practically used as punctuation among some of the riders. There are many who deserve credit for Rihanna’s success, though none more than her A&R.
As long as the 777 Tour has been in existence, Rihanna’s diehard fans (her #Navy) have speculated on who would join her in certain cities. In Toronto, the obvious thought was Drake – a British YouTuber onboard with us Tweeted about it, with certainty. (Drake was out of town, so . . . no.) Last night, Chris Brown’s name made the rounds, though there was more merit to the idea that Kanye would appear: people took photographs of him in the Stockholm airport, and Def Jam publicity sent us his remix to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” while we were all at the show. But then “Run This Town” played, and stage right stayed empty. Same for “All of the Lights,” and all hope disappeared once “Diamonds” played without Kanye’s extension. It’s probably for the best; as SPIN’s Julieanne Escobedo Shepherd noted, guest stars are a cheap trick used too often these days. (Or whatever: Chris Brown’s tour supposedly crosses with Rihanna’s upcoming show in Berlin.)
While many went to bed, Rihanna stayed out until six in the morning, slinging drinks for her after-party guests from behind the bar. Some ticket-winning fans made it in and found Rihanna to be sweet: “I told her my life story,” said one. (She also shared with Rih’s manager a growing frustration among the fans riding with the 777 Tour, that they feel unappreciated and underwhelmed by the experience.) Sweden’s pushiest came to rub shoulders and throw elbows, a good-looking but horrible-acting group of malcontents. Apparently, as I learned from a local girl I met, alcohol in Sweden is incredibly expensive so everyone goes full-throttle-drinking on Friday nights. Last night was Friday night. It was either being fed up by aggressive patrons, or the fact that the rare Stockholm sun was coming up, that led Rihanna to throw her bartending towel down. With a huge smile on her face, she screamed, “I quit!”