Saturday Night: Rihanna At Toyota Center

Rihanna Toyota Center July 9, 2011

Don't stop the music photos in our slideshow.

It may be cutting against the grain to say this, but Rihanna may be the most transgressive pop star out there right now. She can do spectacle just fine - can she ever - but she doesn't need a meat dress or spark-shooting bra to get her point across.

The message is hardly new, but among the Brits and Katys and Ke$has and Beyonces of the world, Aftermath has seldom seen it delivered more convincingly or with more panache than Rihanna did Saturday: Treat her right, and she'll show you a good time. Step out of line, and there's gonna be hell to pay.

If you're lucky, the get-to-steppin' notice will come as sweetly as main-set closer "Take a Bow," which she sang seated on the edge of the stage, the finality of lyrics like "the award for best liar goes to you" coated in girl-next-door honey.

If not, duck. No umbrella in the world could shield you from her wrath.

"Breakin' Dishes," for example, was one of the highlights of Saturday's show, but the high-energy choreography and fist-pumping dance pop covered up a woman on a serious tear: Besides throwing plates, the heroine is celebrating the end of her affair with some tomcat who stayed out until 3:30 one too many times by building a bonfire of his clothes, and she "ain't gon' stop until I see police lights."

It would have been a return visit. The sirens had already showed up once during "Man Down," a fierce bit of reggae in the pistol-packing tradition of The Harder They Come (and echoed later in the overtly sexual dancehall grind of "Rude Boy"). Even if this particular shooting was accidental, it probably could have been avoided: "If you play me for a fool, I will lose my cool."

But Rihanna can also acknowledge her own fallibility in the lovegame, which has given the 23-year-old some of her best material to date. Saturday these songs needed none of the production-number props of her dance-floor calls to arms, but those were pretty damned impressive too, so here's a taste:

"Only Girl (In the World)" - troupe of harlequin B-boy and girl acrobats.

"Shut Up and Drive" - a car Rihanna and her entourage pantomimed destroying as the guitarist wailed out a bulked-up version of New Order's "Blue Monday."

"Skin" - a (very) lucky young man whom Rihanna straddled as a circular cutout sank beneath the stage and said guitarist played one of those feverish solos that always show up in the movies whenever there's some serious window-steaming going on.

"Hard" - a frickin' tank cannon. A pink tank cannon. That shot a couple of T-shirts into the crowd.

"Darling Nikki/S&M" - pleather catsuits, chains and a pillowfight. Of course.

So anyway, despite the space-age Saturday Night Live visuals, none of those songs had the impact of piano ballad "Unfaithful," where Rihanna's vocals made up in naked emotion and unalloyed hurt what the presentation might have lacked in subtlety - she began the song in a cagelike structure and by the end, sure enough, had risen above it. (Now that's a torch song.)

"California King Bed" was a widescreen power ballad about a foundering relationship that, take away Rihanna's forceful gospel/R&B pipes, might have wound up on Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift's next album. On "Hate That I Love You," all it took was her sitting on a stool next to her acoustic guitarist to deliver a stirring pop-soul meditation on smart women and foolish choices. (The crowd, largely ladies in their 20s and 30s dressed for a night on the town, could obviously relate and sang along lustily.)

Same goes for "Love the Way You Lie Pt. 2" in the encore, dysfunction pouring out of her throat to grand-piano accompaniment that was as melancholy and memorable as a Chopin nocturne. Never mind that Rihanna and her keyboardist were also on a platform swinging around Toyota Center from 30 or 40 feet above the stage while she sang it.

Personal Bias: We're not sure if you know this about us or not, but Aftermath is generally not the TMZ/KRBE type.

The Crowd: Well-heeled, let's say. We know it's been asked before, but ladies: How do you walk in some of those things?

Overheard In the Crowd: "Why is she with assholes?"


Only Girl (In the World) Disturbia Shut Up & Drive Man Down Darling Nikki (Prince) S&M Let Me Skin Hard Breakin' Dishes The Glamorous Life Run This Town Live Your Life Unfaithful Hate That I Love You California King Bed Pon de Replay/What's My Name Rude Boy Cheers (Drink to That) Don't Stop the Music Take a Bow


Love the Way You Lie Pt. 2 Umbrella

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