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Rihanna’s ‘Unapologetic’ ‘SNL’ Was Better Than the Internet Thought

Don't let the bewildering '90s backdrop on one song overshadow the impressive ballad that is the other

picture-18576-1373300776Marc Hogan // November 12, 2012

Rihanna’s performance on Saturday Night Live this weekend was a triumph, though it might take some time for many people to agree with that statement.

The most easily tweetable aspect of the pop queen’s appearance on the Anne Hathaway-hosted episode was her lackluster rendition of first Unapologetic single “Diamonds,” for which she wore a camouflage jacket and sang in front of a Windows ’95-era retrofuturist backdrop (a stylistic cousin to Azealia Banks’ new “Atlantis” clip, except with a venue and song that made all this dated trippiness only confusing rather than head-fucking).

But the more enduring clip, below, might be her debut performance of another Unapologetic song, “Stay.” The second-person lyrics will be as ripe for celebrity-culture pseudo-analysis as any Taylor Swift heartbreaker, but here RiRi is in stately ballad form more often associated with Beyoncé, set to a sparse, piano-based backdrop with bluesy electric guitar that wouldn’t be out of place on a Frank Ocean record. “Around and around and around and around we go,” she intones commandingly, and there’s a palpable sense of emotion in her voice — and in the song — that overwhelms the plainspoken words.

If we’ve been quick to criticize “Diamonds” as awkwardly juvenile adult contemporary, let’s be just as quick to praise “Stay” as a torch song that, yup, could play on an adult contemporary station, but communicates grown-ass feelings without growing tiresome and old. No wonder Rihanna’s main hopes for 30 years from now are basically to stay attractive: Here’s a song that finds no conflict between mature elegance and raw passion. And best of all, no stupid screensaver background to spoil it.