Rihanna was once the world's preeminent pop star. And yes, I use past tense.
Despite having her hit "Work" firmly ensconced at number one for the past two months, a stat that ties her with the Beatles as second only to Mariah Carey for most weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Rihanna has recently transcended pop stardom.
The song's success is universal and undeniable. When I told my six-year-old son I was going to a Rihanna concert, the first of the Anti World Tour's two-night stand at Toronto's Air Canada Centre, he asked "Is she going to sing 'Work Work Work Work Work?!?'" (He also really enjoys shouting "pay me what you owe me!")
The sold-out Toronto crowd reacted with even more excitement than a six-year-old to the Caribbean-influenced tune's opening synth pulse before they awkwardly attempted to sing the patois lyrics en masse.
Thing about "Work" is that the song is a grower, and one which was only afforded the opportunity to grow due to Rihanna's track record. It's no textbook pop tune, but it's the closest that her new album "Anti" even approaches in its mission to establish the Barbados-born singer as a legacy act rather than a pop star at the tender age of 28.
And her Anti Tour demonstrates just how successful a mission it was, with almost all the highlights coming courtesy of two-month-old album's timeless tracks despite the pop smashes that permeate her seven previous ones.
Seeing an artist with this many hits always means you'll miss a favourite, but the one obvious omission in her live show -- aside from Drake failing to show up for their collabs "Work" and "Take Care," despite the fact that I totally saw him the night before at the Raptors game -- was the new album track "Higher," a two-minute ode to late-night, whisky-soaked hook-ups that features the most powerful and least restrained vocal of Rihanna's shockingly busy career.
Rihanna released annual albums that made her one of our era's definitive pop stars. She was almost never not on the radio.
For seven years, from 2005 to 2012, Rihanna released annual albums that made her one of our era's definitive pop stars. She was almost never not on the radio.
And this is reflected live, as she often had to assemble medleys or stick to snippets just to cram them all in, mashing together a dramatically slowed-down but still euphoric "We Found Love" with a head nod into "How Deep Is Your Love" before kicking into the big-room beats of "Where Have You Been." Or stringing together her hooks from T.I.'s "Live Your Life," Kanye's "All of the Lights" and Jay Z's "Run This Town."
Even when she finally took a career breather -- there were a little more than three years between the "Unapologetic" and "Anti" albums -- she still kept dropping one-offs, spitting out thinkpiece-inducing bangers like "Bitch Betta Have My Money" and casual collabs like "FourFiveSeconds" with Kanye and some dude named Paul McCartney. It was hard to to tell she was even on a break.
Until she returned with an album that was not like the others.
This tour is not like the others, either. A simple white stage with only few bells and whistles, some dancers initially dressed in sand-coloured wrappings like Rey from The Force Awakens and an unobtrusive band also dressed to blend in.
Rihanna made a few requisite costume changes, but they were relatively tame, too, largely covering her lithe frame and inspiring descriptions like Obi-Wan meets Liza Minelli.
Yes, there was some synchronized dancing, but the production values paled compared to a proper pop show that Britney might put on. Speaking of which, last time I saw Britney she looked like she wanted to be anywhere but onstage playing her old songs -- maybe she's happier in Vegas than on the road? -- while Rihanna was clearly enjoying herself, bantering with the band, charming the crowd and reveling in her new sound. Or rather sounds.
She opened with raspy piano power ballad "Stay" and used the epic retro-Prince guitars of new jam "Kiss Me Better" to bring the concert to a climactic close. She definitely delivered singalong oldies like "Umbrella" and "Diamonds" with pop precision, but the concert really came together when she went off course, going all in with a hard-edge arena rock "Desperado" or all-but-hotboxing the place with her woozy cover of "Same Ol' Mistakes" by indie stoners Tame Impala.
She made "Work" work, and she'll no doubt be a presence on radio for years to come. She is only 28, after all.
Those two songs also neatly sum up her in-progress career transition, as she sang "there ain't nothing here for me anymore" on the former while boasting on the latter that she "feels like a brand new person."
Speaking of brand new, the hands-down highlight was her doo-wop detour "Love on the Brain," a slow burner with a powerhouse vocal that shows off so many different textures and directions it makes one wonder why she didn't start showing off sooner.
Maybe that's because pop stars don't need to be great singers -- they just need catchy songs -- but legacy acts need both.
Now, legacy acts aren't synonymous with nostalgia acts. Rather, they're artists who have hit a career point where they don't need successful albums or radio hits to remain relevant. They can make whatever music they want to (or not want to) and still be popular, respected and sell tickets. It's Prince or Springsteen, but not Billy Idol. It's Nine Inch Nails or Pearl Jam, but not Smashing Pumpkins.
This achievement is usually unlocked at the latter stage of a career, but Beyoncé pulled it off early a couple years ago with a self-titled surprise album that was her least radio-friendly, despite still seeing some success on radio because, well, she's Beyoncé.
Justin Timberlake, too, landed his legacy at a young age, freeing him to take a break from radio so he could star in movies, hang out at "Saturday Night Live" and release new music only when the mood finally struck him.
Same goes for Rihanna. She made "Work" work, and she'll no doubt be a presence on radio for years to come. She is only 28, after all.
But most pop stars' already ephemeral presence completely dissolves once they stop producing regular hits. Thanks to "Anti," both the album and its proof-of-concept tour, the former album-a-year Rihanna no longer has to work when she doesn't want to.
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