R is for attitude: Rihanna in Manila

MANILA, Philippines - A red carpet was laid out at the entrance of the Mall of Asia Arena Thursday night, Sept 19, for local celebrities and other VIPs.

The real star, of course, was the one on the marquee.

Rihanna was in town for the Manila leg of her Diamonds World Tour, which she is doing to  support her latest album "Unapologetic." The 25-year-old Barbadian singer and actress is one of the biggest names in pop and R&B music on the planet, so it was no surprise to see the humongous venue filled almost to capacity for the show. 

While the ticket indicated a start time of 8pm, Rihanna didn't take the stage until much later. Electronic dance act We Are GTA performed a DJ set that attempted to engage the early birds at the venue, although most preferred to sit down and patiently wait for the main act.

I suspect a lot of people amused themselves by checking out the fashion choices of some people in the crowd. Sheer tops, skintight jeans, floor-length skirts and sky high heels might not exactly be practical concert attire, but for a Rihanna show, they weren't exactly out of place. 

It was ironic then that, about 15 minutes past 10pm, Riri emerged onstage wearing what appeared to be a simple bodyhugging white top and baggy basketball shorts underneath a hooded jacket made of the same material. Known for being more than a little risque with her lyrics and her personality [she appears naked on the cover of her latest album], the look was a little tame.

FILLED TO ALMOST CAPACITY. Rihanna turns the Mall of Asia Arena into a pulsating dance club


Rihanna turns the Mall of Asia Arena into a pulsating dance club

But her appearance was enough to coax audiences off their seats and on their feet. Thanks to laser lights and the throb of the live band, the atmosphere was more like that of a pulsing dance club than an arena concert.

Rihanna first came to Manila in 2008 for a co-headlining show with then-beau Chris Brown. Tabloids have since chronicled the turbulent relationship of the two and, for a time, it seemed all the drama of her personal life threatened to eclipse her achievements as a recording artist.

This time, it was all about the music, with the theatrics all on stage instead of off. The singer lost no time and launched into a medley of recent hits including "Phresh Out The Runway," "Birthday Cake" and "Talk That Talk." Her dance moves were simple and fluid, with frequent crotch grabs that reminded me of Michael Jackson's patented moves.

She even assumed the twerking position but stopped before fully launching into twerk territory. The eroticism was unmistakable but it was never off-putting or crass. If anything, Rihanna paired sexy with accessibility: she was a pop superstar who climbed down from her pedestal and moved among the masses. 

The rocker in me appreciated the wicked guitar solo by band leader Nuno Bettencourt, who most people over the age of 27 will no doubt recognize as the frontman of '80s rock band Extreme [yes, of "More Than Words" fame].

Rihanna paid homage to her Caribbean roots with an island-flavored set that included "You da One." Her brief exit from the stage seemed like an opportunity for an outfit change as many of her fellow pop divas like to do, but she would retain the all-white ensemble for the rest of the show. Well-timed pyrotechnics further livened up the busy graphics and images on the gigantic screens on stage.

FLUID MOVES. Rihanna dances Caribbean-style u2014 with a lot of crotch-grabbing u2014 to most of her songs


Rihanna dances Caribbean-style u2014 with a lot of crotch-grabbing u2014 to most of her songs

When the opening notes of one of her earliest hits, "Umbrella," came on, the reaction from the crowd was instantaneous. Clearly, the song has stood the test of time and elicited nearly the same intense appreciation from her adoring fans as when she first performed it live in Manila 5 years ago.

She slowed things down with a ballad, "What Now," before she disappeared briefly again. The shorts were off when she came back, revealing the top to be a sexy one-piece swimsuit. The jacket was still on, though. 

Rihanna floored the accelerator on the next set: monster club hits "We Found Love," "S&M," "Only Girl (In The World)" and "Don't Stop The Music" ensured that almost everybody but the dourest music snob who was "only dragged to the show" was up on their feet, dancing and fist-pumping. Rihanna relied heavily on her back-up singers, as well as the crowd, for portions of the songs, but nonstop chants of "ma-NI-la!!!" helped audiences ignore this one minor quibble.

People who left after her regular set ended with "Where Have You Been" missed something special: the artist finally ended the teasing and took off the jacket, parading her rocking body in only the white, high-cut swimsuit. Those nearest the stage obviously got the best view, but from where I was standing in the Patron standing section, everything about her looked great.

Rihanna did two encores: the slow song, "Stay," and the big finale, "Diamonds." In the song, she implores her listeners to "Shine bright like a diamond," but one can argue that she's really singing it to herself.

The pop diva probably wasn't operating at 100% that night, but she proved that even then, she still radiated energy and had people screaming her name.

Now that's real star power. - Rappler.com

Paul John Caña is the managing editor of Lifestyle Asia magazine and is a live music geek. Email him at pjcana@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @pauljohncana