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A full moon flickers behind thin clouds in the sky above Rabat, Morocco, making the already exotic locale even more beguiling. This is where rich Arab roots mingle impishly with Western curiosity — where a woman can choose to modestly cover her hair with a scarf, yet still break out a booty dance when the moment calls for it.
And on Friday night, before these kindred spirits, Rihanna — herself a charismatic paradox of conservative music-industry machinery and youthful, middle-finger rebellion — hopes to prove just how globally formidable her brand can be.
Only, the pop singer is more than an hour late to this free show, a part of the Mawazine music festival. Listless concertgoers surge against metal barriers, as a stream of policemen yank fainting casualties out of the crowd, even brandishing batons at one point in an attempt to tame the frothing masses. Moments later, that angst will evaporate as Rihanna finally emerges on stage.
A few days back, the singer could be found Instagramming selfies showing off her new denim thong. But today her wardrobe deftly skirts that line between sexy and respectful: A white, cleric-meets-kimono cloak half-covers her black midriff-baring top, as skinny black pants melt into her stiletto, F-me boots. With honey-blonde extensions on one half of her head and a Skrillex-shave job on the other, she’s Beyoncé reinterpreted as fashionably fallen angel.
Opening with “Phresh Out the Runway,” Rihanna also mindfully recast her bump-and-grind routine into a medley of tamer pelvic thrusts, while flanked by two backup dancers wearing brilliant, throwback, Rhythm Nation garb. Together, they plowed energetically through songs from most of her seven studio albums, including her latest, Unapologetic.
Hers is an immediate stage presence with an effervescent smile. And it’s abundantly clear that, at the relatively tender age of 25, little RiRi is already a veteran — albeit one who’s freely reliant on backing tracks. (And why not? One attends her shows for the spectacle, not the powerful vocals — discuss.)
As such, her momentum suffers during ballads, with the key exception of “What Now,” which perked ears by virtue of being her only sorta-maybe reference to Chris Brown. “Is there anyone out there in love?” she asked, as we listened, rapt. “Love can be super-hard sometimes. And it can be lovely.”
In moments of bravado, she flirted with theatricality. “Rockstar 101,” for instance, intriguingly soundtracked a slash-film-fantasy video montage. Among the images: Rihanna smiling in photos of her wielding both an axe and a chainsaw. The pyro during that song was a mere apertif to more ’80s metallurgy throughout the second-half of her set. It included bigger fire, guitar solos from a Nuno Bettencourt-type, and a dude playing the keytar.
Still, Rihanna’s star is at its brightest when she summons that Island Club Grrrl Riddim that’s helped her sell more than 100 million albums worldwide and earn a record 10 No. 1 songs on Billboard’s pop chart. Just a few notes in, “Rude Boy,” “What’s My Name,” “Jump,” and “Umbrella” elicited insta-karaoke. And the gyrotonics prompted by songs such as “S&M,” “Only (Girl in the World),” and “Please Don’t Stop the Music” managed to transform the open field into a sweaty, blissed-out club.
Well past midnight, the Moroccan concertgoers attempted to trickle out. “You’re not leaving until I finish this last song!” Rihanna yelled out, before ending her set wistfully with “Diamonds.” And for the first time that night, the crowd stood still.
Mother Mary Intro
Phresh Out the Runway
Talk That Talk
Pour It Up
You Da One
No Love Allowed
What’s My Name?
All of the Lights
Love the Way You Lie (Part II)
Take a Bow
Cold Case Love
Hate That I Love You
We Found Love
Only Girl (in the World)
Please Don’t Stop the Music
Where Have You Been
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