Broadcast online to a global audience, thanks to Nokia, the show marked one of the first times Rihanna had performed songs from R (which hits stores November 23) before a live audience, and she was clearly emboldened by the high stakes, strutting across the stage — which was decorated with busted TV sets and a mannequin or three — vamping for the camera and powering her way through a hit-packed set.
Of course, the songs from her new album got top billing: As the house lights dimmed (and the crowd chanted "Ri-hanna! Ri-hanna!"), the speakers crackled to life with a pre-recorded message: "Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you who are easily frightened, we suggest you turn around right now. For those of you who can take it, we say: Welcome to the mad house," and the band launched into "Mad House," the intro track from Rated R.
With an invitation of "Come on in," the house lights dimmed, and Rihanna appeared — lace mask covering her eyes, hair dramatically swooping, left arm gloved — and began stalking the stage as the herky-jerky rhythm of "Wait Your Turn" blasted from the speakers. She ad-libbed a bit (at one point singing, "I'm such a f---ing lady"), then, as a wheeling guitar solo blared, she pranced over to a waiting throne, crossed her legs seductively, and went headlong into current single "Russian Roulette."
The band worked the tune into a moody masterpiece, starting with just the spare sound of a chamber cocking, working in icy synthesizers and a stabbing, "Psycho"-style piano line. Rihanna emerged from her throne, reaching out to the crowd and pawing at her chest as she hit the chorus ("You can see my heart beating ... "). She then ascended a platform behind the stage and, silhouetted by a large video screen, brought her hand to her head — fingers mimicking a gun — and pulled the trigger as the stage went dark.
As the crowd cheered wildly, Rihanna took a tour through her earlier hits: a bubbly, club-ified version of "Don't Stop the Music" (which saw her getting frisky with one particularly lucky mannequin); a somber, pretty version of "Take a Bow"; and a gothy take on "Disturbia," slowed down to let the creepy synth lines wash across the stage.
She spit the opening lines of Rated R's "Hard," then welcomed
That, of course, led right into "Umbrella," with Jay rapping his intro then ceding the spotlight back to Rihanna, who belted the song out while Jay urged her to "Take 'em higher!"
The song crescendoed, the audience — some of whom had brought actual umbrellas for the occasion — cheering wildly, and Rihanna once again climbed to the top of the platform, thanking her fans around the world for tuning in. She cracked a confident smile, waved goodbye and strode offstage as the final chords of "Umbrella" echoed throughout the building. The message was clear: As she sang just a few seconds earlier, "I'll be here forever." And the countdown to Rated R had officially began.