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Rihanna Quiet Quit the Super Bowl Halftime Show

Yes, her set exuded the calm coolness she’s known for. Yes, she revealed she’s pregnant again. And yes, the whole performance was just fine.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Yes, the first word of the first song Rihanna sang was bitch, as in “Bitch Better Have My Money If I’m Going to Hook Myself to a Super Smash Bros. Platform High Above the Field While Pregnant to Kick Off My Rapturously Awaited Super Bowl Halftime Show,” the word itself gracefully elided but still gleefully rubbed in our awestruck faces. Yes, the minimalist and vertiginous platform staging evoked either Smash Bros., Super Mario Odyssey, or, for an older demographic guaranteed to be baffled by Rihanna’s whole deal, Donkey Kong. No, she did not sing her newish, Oscar-nominated but very sleepy Black Panther: Wakanda Forever song (great); no, she didn’t sing any new songs at all, and there is zero indication that her hypothetical ninth album, and her first since 2016’s Anti, is forthcoming or will ever exist (shit).

Yes, The Associated Press just confirmed that Rihanna is, in fact, pregnant, so I no longer feel like I’m writing this while playing this particular Super Mario Bros. level.

Yes, there was a copious amount of lip-synching, gracefully and gleefully undisguised. Yes, the Super Smash Bros. staging, quite striking when viewed from above, quite effectively compensated for her limited mobility. (But not as limited as you’d think! She’s pregnant! Holy shit!) Yes, she sang/performed a whole bunch of her stupendously rad hit songs, rapid-fire as these things go: no one selection terribly surprising (even “Bitch”) and none disappointing in the slightest. No, unless you count her training camp–sized cadre of puffy, white backup dancers and her demure band, she didn’t bring anyone out. No special guests. None. Zero. (Yes, I held my breath for the entirety of “All of the Lights.”) Drake wept. Good.

Yes, quite logically, given the fact that she is literally pregnant, she gave approximately 15 percent as much pure effort as, say, Katy Perry in the same spot. Even Rihanna’s choreography—crisp, precise, lethally confident, lascivious enough to trigger angry phone calls but just demure enough to safely ignore those complaints—had a bombastic leisure to it. An old line from her old friend and current halftime show power player Jay-Z kept popping into my head: My presence is charity. But this is the essence of Rihanna’s greatness, her whole baffling but triumphant deal: Her regal restraint, her disinterest almost, can possibly generate more exhilaration than, say, Lady Gaga trying harder than you’ve ever seen anybody try at anything ever in your life. Possibly. “Don’t act like you forgot,” goes one of the “Bitch” lines she could actually sing. No, we didn’t. “Ballin’ bigger than LeBron,” she sang. Yes, OK, definitely.

It was fine. Just: fine. It’s fine that it was merely fine. Super Bowl halftime show performers traditionally show up for this gig with something to prove, or at least something to sell—a rapturously awaited new album, say. But not Rihanna, despite her lengthy musical hiatus since Anti and despite the sense that the stakes were therefore high for this, her highest-possible-stakes return. But that hiatus seemed to only make her more powerful and beloved; her absence, too, is charity somehow. We ecstatically miss her even when she’s there. Even towering high above the literal Super Bowl field, she is holding back; she is chill; she is quite at her leisure. Like that persistent myth that humans only use 10 percent of their brains, she is operating at 10 percent capacity because that’s all our bodies can stand.

The set list was fine. The belted EDM-starburst chorus of “Where Have You Been” quickly echoed by the belted EDM-starburst chorus of “Only Girl (in the World)”: Yes. Great. “We Found Love” barreling straight into “Rude Boy,” which blew by at a faster tempo to make the transition work, making “Rude Boy” one of the few components of this show working harder than usual: Yes. Even better. “Work”: Yes. Of course. Fantastic. (Loved the camera over her shoulder and the ease with which she sang even a song called “Work.”) “Wild Thoughts”: OK. Fine. No DJ Khaled cameo during “Wild Thoughts”: Yes. Fantastic. All of this was great—most of these songs are very arguably among the very best pop music released by anybody in the 21st century—but none of it was particularly revelatory either. I know this song. I love this song. I worship the person singing this song. I still love this song and worship this person even if I’ve already forgotten this performance of the song. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes that’s plenty.

Nothing left to prove, nothing left to sell, unless you count the quick Fenty makeup check before she launched into “All of the Lights.” (Let’s just say it’s her song now.) Would I have swapped out “Run This Town” for, conservatively, any one of 20 of her other hits, including even the sleepy Black Panther one? Yes. Am I going to complain about that, really? Nah. Is it weird that I was largely unmoved as she launched into “Umbrella,” one of my absolute favorite pop songs of this or any other century? It’s a little weird, but what did I want, really? The song’s mere presence is charity. And then she hooked herself back up to a Smash platform and drifted off into the night, belting/performing “Diamonds,” one of the innumerable monster hit songs we were breathlessly thrilled to hear, even if her enthusiasm didn’t quite match ours. It never has and never will: This is the essence of Rihanna. It’s not really that baffling.

The moment, though, that will probably stay with me is a close-up of her face, mid-stride, right before she launched into “Pour It Up”: her smile, her smirk, her radiant side-eye. And then the camera turned upside down. I thought about 50 Cent, rapping “In da Club” upside down during last year’s Dr. Dre–helmed Super Bowl extravaganza, 50 looking not quite comfortable, not quite safe. He was giving it his all, though, because on this stage, with stakes this high, that’s what you have to do. Or that’s what most people have to do, anyway.