Rihanna and A$AP Rocky at Xcel Energy Center, 3/24/13

Rihanna and A$AP Rocky at Xcel Energy Center, 3/24/13
Photo by Tony Nelson

With A$AP Rocky
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Sunday, March 24, 2013

Does naming an album Unapologetic mean you never have to say you're sorry? Pop and R&B megastar Rihanna hit the stage at Xcel a little late (9:50 p.m. or so), but that wasn't the problem. The 10,000 devoted fans from around the upper Midwest would've waited much longer. The singer often abbreviated herself -- in song length and effort. She performed "Rockstar 101," but should retake the course herself.

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Slideshow: Rihanna at Xcel Energy Center, 3/24/13
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It's understood that Barbados-bred Robyn Rihanna Fenty is a physically stunning human. When not fluttering shut, her eyes were conduits of emotion that depicted the range of pleasure and sorrow of everyone at the Xcel. Even if few spoken words escaped them, her purple-painted lips said even more with the occasional smile -- especially when accompanied by a long-armed wave. Her inked-up limbs and torso, her flowing hair with one side shaved close, her gyrating pelvis, her swaggering gait, her bold costuming, and sometimes her voice were all beyond the audience's grasp. They screamed for more, they begged, they wept, and though most would've been pleased to just say they'd been in a room with Rihanna for a couple hours, they still deserved more from someone who at brief moments took command of all her faculties.

Rihanna and A$AP Rocky at Xcel Energy Center, 3/24/13
Photo by Tony Nelson

Leading up was the Harlem rap superstar-in-the-making A$AP Rocky. His stage was [in our best Trinidad James voice] all white everything. Dressed in an ublemished windbreaker, he limped out with a pale cane, and claimed an ivory throne at the center of it all. It was a menacing set, and emphasized the most bass-brutal aspects of the beats backing his already crude rhymes -- summed up in the slow, grinding "PMW (All I Really Need)." "Pussy, money, weed/ that's all a n**** need," he repeated, with hype man A$AP Ferg churning out a chant that amounted to "A$AP" or "hands up," but slurred enough that it could be either. With strobes firing, "Jodye" was a monstrous experience that probably gave nightmares to more than a few concerned mothers in the crowd. But the room only truly exploded for the final song of his 40-minute set, "Fuckin' Problems." As "SLEAZE PLEASE" flashed on the screens on either side of his stage, Rocky unloaded his energy clip, showing a softer side even if to just proclaim his love for "bad bitches."

The choice of Rocky for an opener gave the night a blunt, drugged-out feel, and much of Rihanna's performance continued in that vein. Both she and Rocky have pulled out of dates on this tour so far due to illness, and the bug appeared to be still affecting her voice and willingness to move. She appeared at the front of the stage in a long black robe for the second half of the confessional "Love Without Tragedy/ Mother Mary." Then, the stage opened up to reveal a team of dancers, and a full band, including the thrashing former Extreme axeman Nuno Bettencourt.

In dark boots that were nearly the length of her legs, Rihanna began moving to the corners of her stage. With a flirtatious "Talk That Talk" being the notable exception, the songs in the first segment were dark, slow, and exuded coldness. "Pour It Up" is essentially a sung version of one of A$AP's melodramatic tales of excess, and it was one of plenty of moments where Rih Rih let her midsection and her groping hands do the talking instead of her face.

Rihanna and A$AP Rocky at Xcel Energy Center, 3/24/13
Rihanna and A$AP Rocky at Xcel Energy Center, 3/24/13
Photos by Tony Nelson

It would seem that performing "Cockiness (Love It)" live would be an opportune moment to bring Rocky back out for a collaborative live recreation of their track together. The flame to the clever innuendo was not to be. And a codeine-fueled haziness truly set in on "Numb," which coated the many screens framing the stage with swirling smoke. For much of it, Rihanna semi-sang it, and seemed to give over to her backing track, which happened at multiple points in the night. As she (or a recording of her) repeated "I'm going numb" with no expression, it felt like the whole thing could collapse as she disappeared into the floor for a costume change. Numbness was what we felt in the seats. Any poignancy in the moment was unintentional.
Life returned as she banged out a bit of "You Da One" and "Man Down" upon re-entry. Now clad in a pair of white boots tall enough to be waders, she exuded gusto for a few minutes, but it faded again almost as quickly as it came. By "Rude Boy" and "What's My Name," she would let the audience finish her phrases for her and took a seat on the stage. It would've been cute for a couple of seconds, but the prolonged, sluggish effect of watching her sit sent that message out louder than the infectious songs. "Jump" regained some some footing with the help of flames erupting from the stage, and the nod to the salacious Ginuwine hit "Pony" didn't hurt either.

Rihanna and A$AP Rocky at Xcel Energy Center, 3/24/13

But the true turning point in the uneven set was "Umbrella," one of Rihanna's defining songs and arguably the one that turned her from a star into a blazing comet. With its positivity and warmth and connectedness, surely this would be a moment for her to fight through her throat problems and express something unifying, right? Nope. The backup singers did most of the work, the audience sang the rest, and she looked lost on her own stage. Even a three-word phrase appeared to be too much to give. Though this song is old for an artist who has released an album every calendar year, it should be left off the set list instead of abused.

A few songs later, though, the evening erupted like tropical storm. When introducing "What Now," she had more to say than just "What the fuck is up, St. Paul?" and she set up the song in a disarming manner. After asking who in the crowd was in love, she followed it with the question, "Who hates love, and who thinks love is confusing as fuck?" And it was a reminder of the strength  she has exerted amid a messy series of events with and without Chris Brown. It could've been the pyrotechnics belching out plumes of flame around her, but this appeared to be one of the few songs of the night that she was determined to present with no filter. She sweated a little, she appeared moody, she got unhinged, and it was as close as she came to summing up the turmoil of her existence. It proved time for another costume change, though. And that energy left with her.

Back in a red, midriff-baring evening gown, she then rattled off much of the Rihanna catalog that has "Love" in the title. "Love the Way You Lie" got the crowd singing lustily along, but this was a medley, so it moved quickly to a revamped "Take a Bow," and "Cold Case Love," one of the saddest, most dejected songs about a relationship gone criminally wrong. The tension of "Will it ever be solved/ or am I taking the fall?" didn't stick around long as she segued into "Hate That I Love You" next, and then after another interlude, the feisty "We Found Love" inspired a quick run through the crowd.

As the end of the show was in sight, there were more frequent moments of playfulness dashing out onto Rihanna's face. While her band and dancers stayed uptempo for the entire night, this finally looked to be the time when she was sure she could carry herself through. Even if "Don't Stop the Music" was largely backing track, an empowered strut came out. She licked her lips, and members of the audience finally sparked up some potent-smelling cigarettes. "Where Have You Been" got her dancing to its chugging beat, and it felt like something was building.

Her final outfit of the night looked like a sparkling navy blue pantsuit that Princess Leia might have worn, metallic rings around her neck. It was equally expensive and expansive as a moment, and "Stay" appeared to bring wet pools into her eyes. Rihanna saved something for "Diamonds" that was beautiful and expressive. Glistening herself, her limbs let go of the weight of everything for these precious minutes. It was a relief to know she had it in her, but also a relief to have it all over with.

Rihanna and A$AP Rocky at Xcel Energy Center, 3/24/13
Rihanna and A$AP Rocky at Xcel Energy Center, 3/24/13
Photos by Tony Nelson

Critic's Notebook

The Crowd: Wearing frilly, lacy, and shiny apparel. Taking lots of pictures of themselves. Some had braces on their teeth. About half appeared to understand what A$AP Rocky was doing. Before Rihanna's set, the whole Xcel was watching a bespectacled guy in the floor seats wearing a blue oxford and a sweater vest getting buck and snapping his neck to Kanye West and co.'s "Mercy."

Overheard: "What do you MEAN you're in the suite?!"

Random Detail: Before the show, two girls who proudly declared they were from Brainerd approached us and asked, " Are you here for Rihanna? You LOOK like Rihanna fans!"


A$AP Rocky Setlist

Long Live A$AP
Wild For the Night
Kissin' Pink
Roll One Up
Fashion Killa
Fuckin' Problems

Rihanna Setlist

Mother Mary
Phresh Out the Runway
Birthday Cake
Talk That Talk
Pour It Up
Cockiness (Love It)
You Da One
Man Down
No Love Allowed
Rude Boy
What's My Name?
All of the Lights
Rockstar 101
What Now
Loveeeeeee Song
Love the Way You Lie (Part II)/ Take A Bow/ Cold Case Love
Hate That I Love You
We Found Love
S&M/ Only Girl (In the World)/ Don't Stop the Music
Where Have You Been

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