Abu Dhabi was the unlikely scene of the final pages, of perhaps the most engaging chapter, in the storied evolution of one of pop’s most vibrant, creative flames.
Rihanna's much delayed eighth album Anti — which, after smashing out seven LPs in eight years, broke the long lull since 2012's Unapologetic — finally emerged in January. It revealed the restless talent had been busy with an artistic reinvention, unveiling an expansive and fertile embrace of new colours and flavours, from a singer who previously had no difficulties troubling the charts.
The accompanying Anti World Tour spectacle bewitched and beguiled critics with its pointed iconography and sparse sets, unlocking streams of breathless rapt praise from even the stuffiest broadsheet writers.
And then on Sunday, November 27, that tour’s dynamic arc ended with a final, triumphant show at du Arena, which also served as the closing concert of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix’s musical festivities. What a coup.
Where to begin? Rihanna’s oeuvre is packed with such an embarrassing raft of riches, she could simply have performed straight takes of her 14 US billboard number ones, and no one would have left unhappy. Yet this was not a greatest hits show, but instead an artistic reappraisal of a colourful decade-long career — which prophecy holds began the day, 11 years ago, that an unheard of 17-year-old Barbadian waltzed into Def Jam’s offices and bowled over Jay Z sufficiently to walk out with a six-album contract on the very same day.
Like the kind of pop theatre which chameleons Prince or David Bowie might be proud — yes, really — the Anti tour is presented as a conceptual suite, divided into neatly themed acts, offering fresh continuity and coherence to a scattershot career which has at times cynically embraced a sweeping spectrum of styles and musical personalities.
So the fragile, emotional catharsis of unlikely openers Stay and Love the Way You Lie (Part II) are quickly contrasted by the sassy, strutting hip-hop queen of early big-name collaborations Live Your Life (T.I.), Run This Town (Jay Z) and All the Lights (Kanye). Limb-flailing EDM excursions — We Found Love (Calvin Harris), Where Have You Been — are playfully delivered with all the conviction of a confused karaoke punter, the mic barely reaching RiRi's lips as the crowd picks up the slack.
For all the talk of her cold exterior, the ice cracks mid-set with Umbrella, an inevitable crowd singalong Rihanna does little to hide her enjoyment. Perhaps she was smiling at the two fans near the front of the stage, who brought along their own red umbrellas to wave on cue.
Despite the rumours, Drake didn't show to guest on this year's intoxicating Work — just as he failed to make it to VIP Room's pop-up the night before — but the Canadian was little missed, the song's intoxicating swagger capping a Caribbean-infused medley with Man Down and Rude Boy, the star flanked by a cast of seven dancers, three singers and a six-piece band comfortable stuttering between moody R& B minimalism, dance hall funk and big rock spectacle in seamless segues.
"I don't want to see anybody on their cell phones," commanded Rihanna, "unless they're taking pictures of me", a request flipped on its head when she called for the lights to come out for Diamonds, that most infuriating 2012 earworm.
In a calculated bid to showcase Rihanna's timeless artistry, the night ended as it began, dialled down for the Earthy gospel-blues vamp FourFiveSeconds — recorded alongside Paul McCartney and Kanye West, no less — and the glorious, Muscle Shoals soul of last single Love on the Brain. Channelling the torment and talent of 1960s legend Etta James, this blatant appeal for her place in the pantheon served its purpose well.
Not just a set of songs, but a stunning summation of a life and career which has remained in steady flux, Rihanna’s Anti World Tour is a knockout contender for pop spectacle of the year — not just in the UAE, but anywhere on the globe.
Or, as one witty front row fan put it on a placard waved at the show’s close, “I love you more than free Wi-Fi”.
In 2016, that sounds like diehard devotion.