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Rihanna struts her stuff

Like so many singers who find instant fame with a summertime smash, Rihanna seemed destined for a brief moment in the sun -- say, 12 weeks in 2005 -- as the ``Pon de Replay" girl. She would be followed in time-honored fashion by another young dance-pop diva cooing another infectious jam.

But Rihanna, an 18-year-old beauty from Barbados, returned this year with a winning new album, ``A Girl Like Me," and two more hits. ``S.O.S." traded some island flavor for an edgier club vibe, thanks to the mod riff from Soft Cell's ``Tainted Love." The stern ballad ``Unfaithful" marked Rihanna's required move into darker fare, designed to show that there's more to the singer than a hot bod, a winsome voice, and an easy way with a zesty rhythm.

If Rihanna aspires to gravitas, there was but a glimpse during her brief set at Avalon on Thursday when she sang a spare, raised-fist cover of Bob Marley's ``Redemption Song." But if she doesn't get heavy, who cares? There's a place in the world (and a rabid, diverse audience) for Rihanna just the way she is: shaking it in short-shorts and red pumps, accompanied by a boisterous DJ spinning her backing tracks, and surrounded by flashy dancers.

The Def Jam marketing machine worked its pre-show magic, hurling merch into the crowd to get fans pumped. By the time the main attraction arrived on stage, folks were already screaming for the free posters, and Rihanna's performance -- as intended -- felt a lot like the work of the poster girl come to life. She strutted a bit stiffly about the stage, striking poses and singing dancehall/dance-pop in her nimble, laid-back style. But Rihanna is a pinup with talent. Despite the ``TRL" trappings, show opener ``Pon de Replay," the saucy reggae classic ``You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)," feel-good new single ``We Ride," and rasta romper ``Kisses Don't Lie" glowed -- not with showy vocal licks but subtler, more self-assured colors.

It's too soon to say whether Rihanna's career will follow the brilliant trajectory of the woman to whom she's most often compared: Beyonce. But with the full force of Beyonce's boyfriend behind her (Jay-Z reportedly signed Rihanna on the spot after one audition), the future looks bright.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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