J. Cole is rain on Rihanna’s umbrella-ella-ella at Loud tour show

by Ryan Snyder

Rhianna pops the hood with junk in her trunk at the Greensboro Coliseum. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

There was a big deal made this week about Rihanna topping Lady Gaga as the Queen of Facebook, but she can’t touch Gaga’s numbers where they count the most: in the Touring Gross column. For a Saturday night, or any night for that matter, attendance for Rihanna’s July 23 performance at the Greensboro Coliseum was, to put it gently, pitiable. There were rumors back in May that her entire Loud tour would have to be called off due to dismal ticket sales, but Rihanna hung in there and the result was bad. As in 6,800-people bad. If it weren’t for her wonderfully extravagant production, she would have been better served playing the White Oak Amphitheatre, though she still wouldn’t have sold it out. And that’s too bad, because the 40,970,000 of her Facebook fans who chose to stay home missed, well, a performance worthy of 6,800 people.

Equal parts Technicolored dystopia and fetishistic psychodrama, Rihanna’s stage setup was quite the expensive spectacle. Fog machines billowed as LED-board spaceships on the stage broadcast swirling video images. They shifted around to eject a pod holding the scene’s most precious cargo in Rihanna herself, as male dancers clad in shimmery ’80s hip-hop gear huddled around her as the sugary clubland stomp “The Only Girl In the World” poured forth. She dropped her short, short overcoat shortly into the show to reveal a scandalous, bead-encrusted bikini underneath while she writhed on top of a vivisected car during “Shut Up and Drive.” During her most recent hit “S&M,” her elaborate black leather outfit disassembled into a nearly see-through white onesie in a bondage play that really wasn’t nearly as sexy as it sounds. Neither was the cover of Prince’s “Darling Nikki” that fell flat on an unprepared audience, nor was the emasculating lap dance she rendered unto a random gent from the crowd.

There was plenty to see in Rihanna’s set, and as high concept as it was, newly-minted opener J. Cole’s was sparse and minimalist. Not that the ultra-talented Fayetteville-born MC aneeded an extravaganza to heighten his performance, though his set list could have used some fine tuning (he dropped the Biggie and Tupac tributes he gave at Bonnaroo) after being elevated to official opener status following Cee Lo’s departure — or dismissal, depending on who you ask — from the bill. Cole is still a bit of an unknown to the mainstream, as evidenced by a handful of clueless area newspapers duped into printing a press release stating that his full-time DJ had been added as a replacement opener. But the hardcore hip-hop heads in the building were clearly intimate with Cole’s work. They had the new verse to opener “A Star Is Born” cold, turned the hook to “Lights Please” into a monkish mantra and generally behaved like you’d expect from people who are seeing their favorite artist take the next step.

Rihanna, on the other hand, already has few equals in the pop world, but what sets her apart from others is how she’s adopted the latent artis tic persona of a ’90s UK house diva. If it weren’t for the little hint of a Barbadian patois that surfaced every now and then, her sound would almost be more important to the equation than she is. Presented over two hours, her hits feel like just that: hits. There’s little narrative other than what was engineered into being through the bouts of feminist imagery. She’s becoming the voice that makes a song rather than the artist who makes a song — a singles machine, loved more for the catchy ephemera of her contributions to artists like Jay-Z (“Run This Town”), TI (“Live Your Life”) and Eminem (“Love the Way You Lie”) than for her own songs, which are ridden like workhorses, wrung out in other media and tossed aside until the next jam comes along.

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