Whoever she is, Rihanna is good
The 19-year-old chanteuse is not afraid to experiment live, and it all fits
under her 'Umbrella.'
By Mikael Wood, Special to The Times
Who exactly is Rihanna? This 19-year-old singer from Barbados is responsible for
what might be the year's biggest hit, "Umbrella," yet since she first showed up
on pop radio in 2005, Rihanna has resisted the ready-made characterizations that
typically accompany such an ascent.
"Pon De Replay," her first single, played up her Caribbean roots with an
effervescent dance hall beat, but "S.O.S." portrayed her as a disco-punk
princess, while "Unfaithful" did the grown-up piano-ballad thing. At the MTV
Video Music Awards in September, Rihanna joined emo-rock band Fall Out Boy for a
performance of her sassy new-wave tune "Shut Up and Drive." And though her
current album is called "Good Girl Gone Bad," "Umbrella" makes a promise of
The singer reveled in the contradictions Tuesday at the House of Blues in West
Hollywood, showing more interest in demonstrating her range than her
concentration. Unlike peers such as Beyoncé, who works hard to present an image
of airtight self-assuredness, Rihanna seems up for anything; she's as unclear
about who she is as we are, and that gives her music a spark that feels
remarkably true to the 19-year-old's experience.
The appealing disarray began with her six-piece band, which appeared to include
two members of My Chemical Romance, two members of the Roots and two of the
Looking Goth-girl chic in a black tutu and bondage-inspired heels, Rihanna
opened her hourlong set with a scrappy garage-pop take on "Pon De Replay" that
offered a sign that she's been looking to "Rhythm Nation"-era Janet Jackson for
stylistic cues lately. There were others, including a hair-metal duel between
her keyboardist and guitarist during "Let Me," from 2005's "Music of the Sun,"
and a reggae-rock breakdown in "Kisses Don't Lie," from last year's "A Girl Like
Tuesday's show wasn't all about rock, though: Whipping around a pink feather
boa, Rihanna gave "S.O.S." a post-"Chicago" Broadway makeover, but wisely made
no attempt to overpower the tune's signature riff, which comes from Soft Cell's
synth-pop classic "Tainted Love." And a version of "Is This Love" by Bob Marley
-- "one of my favorite artists of all time," Rihanna said -- throbbed with a
mellow island-life vibe.
Not every gesture connected. In "Hate That I Love You," her new single, Rihanna
emphasized her snooze-worthy goody-two-shoes side. Later, she overdid
"Unfaithful," a soap-operatic number that doesn't require melisma or moody blue
Inevitably, the end of the show brought "Umbrella," which Rihanna introduced
with a spare guitar-and-voice verse that seemed to acknowledge Marié Digby's
home-recorded YouTube version of the hit. Then the track's booming beat kicked
in, and Rihanna exercised the unique brand of stardom she's still figuring out.