At the Super Bowl, Rihanna Returns to Music, Briefly

Moments after Rihanna stepped off the Super Bowl LVII halftime stage Sunday night at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., her representative confirmed what her performance had suggested: The singer is pregnant with her second child.

It was, as pregnancy reveals go, not quite on the theatrical level of Beyoncé’s belly rub at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. But for Rihanna, who last year gave birth to her first child, it was a stroke of performance savvy nonetheless — maybe the only gesture that could outshine, and reframe, the show she had just given.

Rihanna hasn’t released an album since “Anti” in 2016, and many in her fervent fan base took her willingness to perform at the Super Bowl this year as a sign that her return to music might be imminent. Perhaps she would announce a new single or album, or maybe a tour.

Instead, she used one of pop music’s biggest stages to assert that despite all of that collective anticipation, she had other things to focus on: a private life to return to. So if her actual onstage delivery had been slightly weary, well, there were more important things to focus on.

In 13 minutes, Rihanna casually performed snippets of 12 hits, universally known songs that don’t require much in the way of fluffing or bombast. The closest she came to frisson, to sass, to authority, to verve came a little after the halfway point of the set.

Rihanna didn’t overemphasize movement, instead holding court at the center of her dancers.Credit…AJ Mast for The New York Times

Just after the familiar horn fusillade of “All of the Lights” boomed from the speakers, Rihanna took a compact from the outstretched hand of one of her dancers with her right hand, applied two dabs of powder — a nod to Fenty Beauty, which has been a bigger professional focus for her than music in recent years — and returned it before grabbing the microphone with her left hand from another dancer.

Then she launched into the hook of “All of the Lights,” a decade-plus-old collaboration with Ye (formerly Kanye West), whose antisemitic remarks late last year have made him a pariah. She followed that song immediately with “Run This Town,” another collaboration with Ye (and Jay-Z).

A quick cosmetics ad? Sure. An implicit statement of support for an embattled peer? Why not. Rihanna — one of the crucial pop hitmakers of the 21st century — needs the Super Bowl less than the Super Bowl needs her, and her performance was a master class in doing exactly enough. She treated it like many people approach their professional obligations when their personal life is calling: dutiful, lightly enthused, a little exhausted, looking to work the angles ever so slightly.

The queen of nonchalance, Rihanna first appeared Sunday night on a stage floating above the 50-yard line (a gesture cribbed from Ye’s 2016 Saint Pablo tour) singing “Bitch Better Have My Money.” She was tethered to the platform, limiting her maneuvering, but even when she reached the ground she didn’t overemphasize dance, instead holding sturdy court at the center of 100-plus dancers, sharing in their movements but never outdoing them. During “Work,” she led them as if she were a tutor calling out moves but not participating in them.

Rihanna’s hits are plentiful — she has charted more than 60 times on the Billboard Hot 100 — and they are varied. But there was no true thematic through line to this casual revue of a dozen deeply beloved songs. Mostly, she leaned into the up-tempo side of her catalog — “Where Have You Been,” “Only Girl (in the World)” — with nods to her Caribbean heritage on “Work” and “Rude Boy.” At the set’s end, she emphasized her big-picture, one-word-title smashes, “Umbrella” and “Diamonds,” which prioritize melodrama over feeling.

Rihanna is many things — a new mother, a billionaire mogul in fashion and cosmetics, an astonishingly reliable pop star with a deep catalog. But she is not a current hitmaker. And she had not performed a show of this scale since 2016.

So in its marketing, the Super Bowl amplified how it was a coup to land her most visible effort in years. During promotional teases, Apple Music’s Ebro Darden portentously intoned, “The wait. Is almost. Over.”

In essence, the event was her appearance. The event was the event. There were no guests, despite the frequency and power of her collaborations. No costume changes, despite her standing as a fashion innovator — she wore an all-red outfit, removing and adding layers throughout.

Rihanna performed part of her set on a stage floating above the field.Credit…AJ Mast for The New York Times

Though the performance was brief and hurried, it nevertheless felt slow. There was little variation in tone or energy, no aesthetic nods to the lightly themed set list. It was a routine designed to trigger long-honed pleasure centers, not ignite new fervor — a triumph of foregone conclusion.

That Rihanna appeared at all is a testament to the ways in which the N.F.L. has been successful in papering — or performing — over its controversies. She declined to perform at the Super Bowl in 2019, an era in which turning down a gig on one of the world’s biggest stages — a retort to the N.F.L.’s response to Colin Kaepernick’s activism — felt political. But the involvement of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation with the league in the years following has remade the halftime show both musically and socioculturally.

From an entertainment perspective, that’s been for the best. And for Rihanna, playing halftime is a milestone befitting the scope of her achievements. But her show wasn’t overtly political, or even particularly celebratory of her litany of hits. Instead, it served as something of a placeholder. She’d come to perform, yes. But she also has more pressing things to attend to.

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