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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

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.

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