ABU DHABI // The wait was over for both Rihanna the pop star and the Middle East fans who love her last night. Taking the outdoor stage at Emirates Palace shortly before 11pm for her show, scheduled to roll past midnight fireworks, the singer pointed out she was performing for her first time in the region as well as giving her first concert since she was assaulted by her former boyfriend, the R&B singer Chris Brown, in February.
She came out onto a stage covered in gold, Oscar-style mannequins and piles of old-fashioned model televisions and radios. The sounds of a track off her new album, called Madhouse, were accompanied by video montages of the pop star over the last year. She launched into Wait Your Turn, and its timely refrain "the wait is over", also off the new album. "Abu Dhabi, I am so excited to be here," she said, later asking "is anybody excited about the new year?"
Few people can be as pleased to see the back of 2009. She had planned to play in Dubai in May but the date clashed with Brown's sentencing. In the media scrum surrounding her attack, pictures of her injuries were leaked by the LAPD to a gossip website. "I am determined for my life not to become about that incident," she told The National earlier this month. Speculation had been rife in the Western press as to what Rihanna would wear for her Abu Dhabi concert. Would she have to tone down her famously raunchy stage outfits? Apparently not: she appeared onstage wearing a bronze-coloured doublet with giant shoulder pads paired with striped tights - provacative without being fleshy, later performing a cover of Justin Timberlake's Rehab.
It's easy to forget that the singer is still only 21 and appeared on the scene in 2005. If 2009 was her annus horribilis, the preceding couple of years were extremely good for her. In 2007 Rihanna topped the charts in 27 countries with her Jay-Z collaboration Umbrella. Its parent album, Good Girl Gone Bad, picked up six Grammy nominations and supplied a remarkable number of additional hits. Shut up and Drive, Don't Stop the Music and I Hate that I Love You all performed impressively, while Take a Bow and Disturbia scored number ones in Europe and America respectively. She seemed unstoppable.
The past year put paid to that notion. Her new album, Rated R, lacks the immediacy of its predecessor. It doesn't broach the topic of the Chris Brown incident directly but, in its gloom and ferocity, it can't help but reflect Rihanna's experiences. Titles such as Russian Roulette and Fire Bomb painted an alarming picture of the singer's mental state. Let's hope 2009 was a blip. Judging by the reception in Abu Dhabi last night, there are enough fans out there to ensure she bounces back harder than before.