Andy Kropa / Invision / AP
Sunday, May 1, 2016 | 8:02 p.m.
Editor’s Note: No photographers were approved for Rihanna’s concerts Friday and Saturday nights at Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Like an athlete driven to championship triumph by drawing motivation from doubters, Rihanna must make mental notes on what detractors describe as her drawbacks.
The Barbados belle’s game plan for 2016 appears built around beating all of them. First, she responded to valid criticisms about having never managed a great album by releasing “Anti,” her most innovative and cohesive collection of songs.
Now she’s using those songs live to defeat an invalid notion that her singing ability can’t compare with other contemporary pop stars. Rihanna serenaded an audience of about 12,000 to runaway success Friday night at Mandalay Bay Events Center, on the first of two back-to-back local concerts as part of her “Anti World Tour.”
She had the requisite wardrobe changes, choreographed numbers and production tricks, though they were all employed in unexpected moderation. The emphasis was on showcasing her voice through the new material.
Her singing sailed through the arena with the beauty of a perfectly spiraled deep pass from a quarterback and provoked most of the crowd to move like cheerleaders.
Nine of the 25 songs on the setlist came from “Anti,” and they uniformly brought the best out of Rihanna. She kept lip syncing to a minimum during the new songs, instead focusing on hitting and holding notes to an extent some may have thought she wasn’t capable.
Rihanna came off as less engaged when digging into her trove of hits. The show was no celebration of recently moving into third all time with 14 No. 1 singles.
She performed only half of those songs, including abridged versions of ubiquitous anthems “Umbrella” and “We Found Love.” Rihanna mostly danced her way through older cuts like “Rude Boy” and “Birthday Cake.”
But the mediocre execution felt forgivable after hearing her soar through “Consideration” or brood over “Desperado.” The best delivery may have come immediately, as Rihanna entered through the back of the venue and climbed up a platform that enclosed the sound booth before belting out 2012 ballad “Stay.”
She then lowered the hood on her white robe, revealing her face and sparking a piercing scream from the crowd. The mania continued as Rihanna boarded a suspended walkway that escorted her to an all-white stage after she hovered over the floor seats performing “Woo” and “Sex With Me.”
She eventually joined a set six background dancers who were talented enough to distract everyone on the three occasions Rihanna dropped below stage to put on fresh outfits — a plain-colored mixture of leotards and bodysuits.
The show brightened with inflatable orbs lighting up on the back of the stage during “Man Down,” and massive clumps of foam rained down a clear curtain starting with “Diamonds.” But those touches were minor and easy to miss with Rihanna’s voice overshadowing.
The headliner certainly put in more vocal work than camouflage-clad opener Travis Scott, a Houston rapper who largely barked over backing tracks. But Scott, perhaps energized by his 24th birthday Saturday and his mother being in attendance, was an expert in his primary role of revving the crowd.
He went into the liveliest section around the stage and proceeded to finish off the final 10 minutes of his set there bouncing alongside ticket-holders. Right before the location switch, Scott played a snippet of mentor Kanye West’s “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2.”
It was the closest Las Vegas — and anywhere outside the Philippines where West recently played, for that matter — will get to hearing West’s new album “The Life of Pablo” in a live setting any time soon. Rihanna didn’t perform her memorable “Pablo” guest spot found on “Famous” but did sound terrific in diving into older West collaboration “All of the Lights.”
She put it at the end of a medley, a saving choice after she seemed to run out of breath and miss a couple words on Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” right before. As the show later neared its close, Rihanna picked up a second wind and cranked up her pipes for “FourFiveSeconds,” the single she put out last year alongside West and Paul McCartney.
The flawless rendition gave the concert a sense of finality. But Rihanna had other plans.
“I don’t want to leave until I play all my favorite joints off ‘Anti,’ ” she said.
Rihanna aptly closed with “Love on the Brain” and “Kiss It Better,” a number of fans humming the latter on their way out of Mandalay Bay. They may have come wanting the hits, but they left satisfied with the heavy dose of “Anti.”
Those songs are leading Rihanna to win the battle over whether she’s as talented as her sales figures and radio play purport her to be.
Case Keefer is the Las Vegas Sun’s assistant sports editor and an avid music fan.