Rihanna Super Bowl halftime review: A pop icon delivers a masterclass

“Make me feel like I’m the only girl in the world,” Rihanna sang to roughly 100 million members of the human race near the start of her Super Bowl halftime performance on Sunday night — and somehow, she got exactly what she asked for: civilization’s undivided attention for 13 minutes while she made her streamlined expertise look, sound and feel like total nonchalance.

The rest of civilization? We got whiplash. The kind that feels good. Because for the past handful of years, we’ve been living on a planet where Rihanna mostly exists as a fond, semi-recent memory. The 34-year-old made her boldest and latest album, “Anti,” way back in 2016, and has since kept relatively zip-lipped, choosing to cloak herself in whatever perfumed fog floats atop the mountains of cash generated by her respective cosmetics and lingerie lines. As a business, Rihanna booms in perpetuity. But as a superstar of popular song, she prefers shadows to spotlight, still holding on to that one thing that cannot be bought: mystique.

Rihanna performed a medley of her greatest hits and revealed her baby bump during the 2023 Super Bowl halftime show on Feb. 12. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

What does that word even mean now? Is it something anyone still wants? In a digital era when shameless overexposure seems like a prerequisite for any kind of stardom — on TikTok, in Congress — Rihanna remains cool and unthirsty, operating on her own terms and timeline. She might materialize on Instagram now and then, pulling from her vast repertoire of Mona Lisa smiles, but her musical absence has turned her hit-drenched songbook into one of those secrets that the whole world is in on — a pervasive sound with a logic-defiant aura of exclusivity.

That feeling seemed to saturate State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Sunday, where Rihanna unveiled her hits like surprises that everyone saw coming. But first, they had to look up. That’s where the singer kicked everything off, smiling and sneering through her 2015 standout hit “B—- Better Have My Money,” floating over the 50-yard line on a suspended platform that resembled a smartphone the size of a Ford F-150. When she finally descended to the surface, she paced the stage at a mesmerizingly easygoing pace, surrounded by twitchy dancers who kept finding new ways to cut painstaking silhouettes while clad in puffy white bodysuits seemingly made of marshmallow.

The music felt just as plush, just as precise, with Rihanna effortlessly snapping a dozen hits together like so much Lego brick — a piquant “Rude Boy,” then a pillowy “Work,” then a serpentine “Wild Thoughts,” and on and on it went. As a vocalist, her biggest notes weren’t the highest ones so much as the broadest ones — the kind that make her most familiar hooks feel so casually capacious. But with the proceedings verging on colossal by the time she reached the regal fanfare of “All of the Lights,” she chose to tamp down the pomp by pretending to check her makeup in a compact mirror. Has anyone made a Super Bowl halftime show look this good while making it look this easy?

Also, did it matter that we were once promised this whole thing would never happen? In 2019, Rihanna told Vogue that she had turned down an offer to perform at the Super Bowl in solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick after the league had silenced his stand against racist policing. “I couldn’t dare do that,” Rihanna said of a hypothetical halftime show. “For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout.”

Another unsurprising surprise, then: None of that was acknowledged from the stage. Nor was the fact that Rihanna was presenting this whole extravaganza while pregnant with her second child — news that her representatives confirmed to the press before the game itself had ended.

Which brings us back to mystique, and how it thrives in silence, and how that silence gives us space to anticipate, to speculate, to imagine, to wonder, and ultimately, to be. Mystique is a blank space that the listener gets to live in, but one whose breadth the musician always designs. Remember that ancient quote frequently credited to Claude Debussy about how music is the space between the notes? Miles Davis eventually gave it a nice twist — something like, It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.

After bringing out her most beautiful notes for the biggest show of her life, Rihanna thanked her audience and flashed another one of those unknowable smiles — the kind that da Vinci could have painted. It was time to go back to that silent place where everybody else gets to decide what they hear now.

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