Show Review: Rihanna, J Cole at Oracle Arena, 6/30/11

by Dakin Hardwick on July 4, 2011

I’m not going to beat around the bush here… I really like Rihanna. I respect the fact that she doesn’t write her own music (or pretend to write their own music), because she doesn’t need to. I appreciate that, unlike many of her Rocafella peers, she doesn’t need to placate to the indie community for credibility. Because, quite frankly, I don’t need my pop stars hoping to get caught by the paparazzi at a Dirty Projectors show or swooning over Ratatat on their “blog.” Rihanna is a pure, classic pop star. And she knows how to handle an arena-sized live show.

Original opening act, Cee Lo Green dropped off the bill due to scheduling issues. Whether or not this had to do with his TV show, preparations for the rumored about Cee Lo/Big Boi c0-headlining tour, or embarrassment over a certain Twitter feud is yet to be seen. Enjoying a last minute “bump up” in the bill was J Cole. While his slot was filled in by a DJ that played a fun assortment of remixes of pop & hip hop hits, sliding in a few alt rock crossover classics like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Seven Nation Army,” the largely unknown Cole had some mighty big shoes to fill.

It was a slow start, with the huge stage to fill, and all he had with him was a DJ and two keyboardists, he definitely seemed a little nervous, but by the end of the set, he got a good portion of the crowd out of their seats, and certainly made an impression on the near-capacity crowd. The only thing that he could’ve done better was insure that his merch was available, which didn’t seem to be based on the two merch tables I looked it.  There was at least a guy that had a homemade shirt that said “J Cole #1 Fan,” proving that a few J Cole shirts could’ve been good for him.

Rihanna came on stage, wearing basically a bikini, and jumped head first into a set that was essentially wall-to-wall hits. Conveyor belts lined the stage so the band, the dancers, and Rihanna were all moving from side to side throughout the first song, “Only Girl In The World.” The very busy Rihanna kept moving throughout the first four songs, before the first of several costume changes. She came out in a full suit, and “stripteased” her way through Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” one of the delightfully naughty songs that Prince won’t play anymore. She slowed it down just a touch, and managed to embody both Nikki and Nikki’s admirer with plenty of skill and sass, and managed to make the Purple One’s song her own. She, of course ended this song by her suited female dancers to chains and taking this into “S&M,” one of the finest tributes to this fetish on pop song since Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs.”

Midway through the set, Rihanna took to the middle of the arena, and she had a set of timbales set up to do her second Prince-ode, a cover of Sheila E’s “The Glamourous Life.” Although it’s a great song, and very well suited for her voice, I believe this to be her only mis-step in the show. The arrangement was a bit awkward, and she attempted to duplicate the original timbale solo, but she really isn’t much a drummer, and it fell a bit flat. Better was her version of “Run This Town,” which instead of doing it with pre-taped Kanye West and Jay Z vocals, she fleshed the song by adding bits of “I Love The Way You Lie” and “Live The Life” to the mix, doing the song while wondering through the venue, and giving some much closer face time to the people at the show.

The next portion of the set was the “ballad” portion, and she changed into a stunning ball gown to do “Unfaithful,” the only song she did from 2006’s A Girl Like Me. (Her debut, Music Of The Sun, was completely ignored) She then did “Hate That I Love You” with her guitarist, Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme, while sitting on stools in a corner of the stage. It was a cute little nod to Extreme’s “More Than Words” video which may have been lost amongst most of the crowd, whom even if they knew the video, probably had no idea that he was the guitarist from it.


What would you say, if I took those words away? (Photo courtesy Jeremy Gunderman)

After another run through of club her club hits, the show felt like it was going to come to an end with the infectious “Please Don’t Stop The Music,” a song that could’ve been at any time in the last 40 years. Instead, she pulled a 180, and closed with the torch song “Take A Bow.” It was an odd choice to close such a high energy show with a slower song, but it somehow worked. The performance was emotionally intimate and intense, especially for a show that concentrated so heavily on “fun.”

The encore was, appropriately enough, “Love The Way You Lie, Part II,” the much darker version of the Eminem hit that appears on Loud, complete with a floating piano. The song was missing nothing with Eminem not there. It was also a relief, once again, to get a performance without a canned voice trying to emulate the recorded version. The live arrangement was passionate, and also proved that Rihanna could handle a wide arrange of singing styles, especially with the subtle twang of this song.

As expected, the show ended with one of the few songs from the last 5 years that could be dubbed a “standard,” her anthem “Umbrella.” It was the right way to end the show, with the “It’s raining…” refrain punctuated by so much glitter and confetti in the room that I’m still finding it several days after the show.

With this spectacle, it’s nice to know that we may have a genuine, unapologetic pop star that can hold her own. The set was 2 1/4 hours, which far exceeded anything that Britney, Lady GaGa, or really any of her peers can handle without losing steam, and it was a total pleasure.


Set List:

Only Girl (In The World)
Shut Up and Drive
Man Down
Darling Nikki
Let Me
Raining Men
Breakin’ Dishes
The Glamorous Life
Run This Town/Love The Way You Lie/Live Your Life (medley)
Hate That I Love You
California King Bed
What’s My Name?
Rude Boy
Cheers (Drink To That)
Don’t Stop the Music
Take A Bow


Love The Way You Lie (Part II)

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