The wait for pop superstar Rihanna’s one-night concert on Thursday at the SM Mall of Asia Arena—a part of her “Diamonds World Tour”—was long and tedious.
The Arena lobby was packed and bristling with activity an hour prior to the show’s scheduled 8 p.m. start. The metro crowd’s most fashionable, in varying levels of undress and overdress, filled the air with distinctive chatter and laughter. Local stars like Kathryn Bernardo caused a commotion among young girls. Men—most likely dragged by their girlfriends—made a bee line for food and drinks.
Around half past 8, Miami-based DJ duo GTA pumped up the crowd with blasts of earthshaking club beats from their booth. Or at least they tried to. This front-act set lasted close to an hour, but hardly anyone cared enough, or was drunk enough, to dance.
Thinking their idol would turn up any minute, the crowd erupted in shrieks and chants of “Rihanna! Rihanna!” when GTA exited. But what followed was another hour of sitting around, leg stretching and “selfie” sessions, as the crew set up the equipment. A few started cheering and applauding, as though willing the show to begin.
Finally, at a little past 10, the lights went down and LED screens sprang to life, showing some Egyptian- or goddess-inspired image in black and rich golden hues. Then a curved LED wall was raised, revealing the Barbadian pop juggernaut atop a short flight of steps. “Ma-ni-la!” shouted Rihanna, wiping away the crowd’s restlessness.
We had half-expected her to be in a costume that would flaunt her famous curves. Instead she was in a baggy, all-white urban street wear—bandana, hoodie over a mesh top, basketball shorts, sneakers. For a split second, it seemed she would start rapping. Well, she did something pretty close.
Moving about with the swagger of a hip-hop artist, Rihanna threw herself into the hard-hitting rave ditty “Phresh Out the Runway,” from her latest album “Unapologetic.” Her moves were rough, angular, provocative, haphazard. She shook her taut buns, thrust her hips, stuck out her tongue, grabbed and rubbed her crotch. She did all these—as her album title suggests—unabashedly. (Through the years, she has morphed from a pop-R&B Beyoncé-lite into a risqué performer churning out sexually charged songs.)
Rihanna, who, at 25, has seven studio albums and 12 No. 1 singles under her belt, continued her set with more upbeat songs—“Mother Mary,” “Talk That Talk,” “Pour It Up,” “Numb” and “Birthday Cake”—a collaboration with her controversial, on-and-off lover, Chris Brown. Playfully skipping around like a child, Rihanna at this point gave a delightful performance of the reggae-inspired “You Da One,” “Man Down” and “No Love Allowed.”
Though the first hour of the concert was interspersed with such hits as “Rude Boy” and “What’s My Name?” we had a niggling feeling that things were just trudging on instead of whipping past. Despite her antics, what came across was an air of nonchalance that bordered on laziness.
Rihanna’s singing was suspect, and there was no indication of choreography outside her freestyle gyrations and come-hither moves. Surely, her monster hit “Umbrella” deserved a modest production number. As for the much ballyhooed multiple costume changes in bigger cities, there was no trace of it. OK, she took off her shorts later to reveal that her top was really a swimsuit.
Mercifully, the concert (sponsored by PLDT Fibr and Smart Music) picked up spark in its final 30 minutes. Rihanna managed to salvage the otherwise uninspired show—not because she made more effort, but on the sheer strength of popular hits that she sang one after another.
The audience went wild, dancing and singing along to “Hate That I Love You,” “Take a Bow,” “Love the Way You Lie,” “We Found Love,” “S&M,” “Don’t Stop the Music,” “Only Girl (In the World)” and “Where Have You Been.” At last, some decent choreography. At one point, Rihanna descended the stage to high-five fans who had paid P26,990 for SVIP section spots.
For an encore, Rihanna slowed down with the torch ballad “Stay,” before concluding— amid much screaming and cheering—with “Diamonds.” There she was finally, shining bright like a diamond … though not as intensely as we hoped she would.